These weeks, as a nation, as Jews, we are sad, mournful even. Though we had just concluded the Book of Bamidbar and chanted together “Chazak, chazak venitchazek!” (Strong, strong, let us be strengthened!), we don’t feel well at the moment. How could we? We are now in the three weeks between Shiva Asar be’Tammuz and Tisha Av, the most painful period of the Jewish year, the time when we remember countless tragedies that befell our nation.
It’s true that some of these tragedies are possibly only post-facto linked to this time of the year, but some are well documented as to their exact dates: the first crusade, the expulsion of Jews from Spain, France and England in the Middle Ages, the Destruction of the two Temples, as well as more modern events such as the Buenos Aires Jewish Community Center bombing in 1994 which killed 85 and injured 300, or the beginning of the Gaza disengagement in 2005 — they all seemed to have “conglomerated” during these few weeks, during the first couple of weeks of the month of Av.
To make matters even more serious, we just passed from the three-weeks into the nine-days, as yesterday, Friday, was Rosh Chodesh Menachem Av. We are now officially in a period of time when Jewish law prohibits many comforts, such as making purchases of new clothes, eating meat and drinking wine (except on Shabbat), swimming and bathing for pleasure, home improvements, fun activities and many others.
As a nation, we are sad and frustrated. We ask G-d why. Why is our exile so long? Why is our Temple still unbuilt? Why isn’t G-d’s realm established on earth, as the old prophecies tell us? We wonder what we did to deserve all that, two thousand years without what we cherished most. We look back on our history and we can’t help but feeling overwhelmed at the long list of calamities that seems to have been part of our national destiny since time immemorial. We read in shul what Jewish tradition calls t’lata de’puranyiuta, the three Haftarahs of misfortune. And we think.
This week’s Haftarah is taken from the book of Jeremiah, who was dubbed by a work published in England in 1993 “the weeping prophet”. Yeremyiahu (Jeremiah) is almost synonymous with suffering, having witnessed the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the biggest calamity of the Jewish nation, and having subsequently authored the famous Eicha, the Book of Lamentations which is read on Tisha Be’Av.
It is indeed no surprise that Jeremiah invokes in his message images of frustration, sadness and pain. But if we look more closely into the Haftarah, the part that’s striking is not the action, but the subject. In this week’s Haftarah, it isn’t us, the Jewish people who are suffering. It is G-d Himself!
כה אמר ה’ מה מצאו אבותיכם בי אול — Thus said Hashem: “What iniquity did your forefathers find in Me, that they distanced themselves from Me and went after nothingness, and have turned into nothingness? They did not say: Where is Hashem, who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us in the wilderness, in a land of plain and pit, in a land of waste and the shadow of death, in a land through which no man has passed and where no man has settled.? Yet I brought you to a fruitful land, to eat its fruit and its goodness; but when you came, you contaminated My land, and made My heritage into an abomination.” — Jeremiah 2:4-6
That is not anger. It is not wrath. It is not the desire to punish or exact revenge. It is pain, suffering, frustration, and a deep and consuming desire to understand. What happened? asks G-d. What went wrong? Where did I do wrong? How did it come to that?
The idea that G-d is not just upset with people, but also pained by the need to punish them is not new. In a famous vignette in the Talmud, Rabbi Yochanan talks about the moment the Sea of Reeds split to allow the Jewish nation to pass through during the Exodus from Egypt. After the Jews crossed, the sea returned its waves upon the pursuing Egyptians. It was at this time that — according to tradition — the Shirat HaYam, the Song at the Sea, was sung by the children of Israel. And it was also then — Rabbi Yochanan points out — that the ministering angels wanted to join in the singing, to exalt G-d for the miracles He performed. The Talmud records G-d’s harsh reply to the angels:
מעשה ידי טובעין בים ואתם אומרים שירה — The work of My hands, [the Egyptians], are drowning in the sea, and you want to sing Me songs? — Talmud, Meggilah 10b
Whether we understand it fully or not, G-d seems to be in sync with our pain. When we suffer, He suffers. Unlike the gods of old, the pagan, Greek or Roman deities who rejoiced in the pain and misery of mortals, sometimes to the point of pure cruelty, G-d has empathy and love. Even when people deserve to be punished — as was the case of the Egyptians, who had enslaved G-d’s people for generations, and were bent on their utter destruction — G-d punishes with a crying heart. As the Talmud concludes in tractate Megillah: G-d does not rejoice over the downfall of the wicked.
But there is more in this week’s Haftarah, because it’s not just G-d’s pain we experience here, but also, as I mentioned, His frustration and desire to understand. What went wrong? Why?
At first glance, these are human, not godly emotions. If we look in all the annals of religious history, deities don’t have these thoughts, they don’t experience these feelings. Deities judge, they rule, they desire and take, they make the rules and then enforce them. At best, they reward the righteous and punish the wicked. To encounter G-d in such a state of mind, so to speak, seemingly borders on blasphemy. Because G-d cannot show weakness, right? G-d cannot cry. Nothing affects Him. He cannot have a heavy heart, because everything is perfect in His high heavens.
Yet G-d doesn’t shy away from these feelings. Moreover, He also chooses to share them with us in the words of the prophet. He talks to us about His pain. He almost shows us His tears. If we read the Haftarah carefully, we discover that every verse is filled with this kind of discourse: frustration at the present state of things, a deep need to understand, and a desire to find a solution to the problems, to make them go away.
It isn’t a coincidence that throughout the Haftarah, G-d is not referred by the name Elokim, the name of judgement and rebuke, but rather by the name Hashem, a Name that symbolizes love and kindness. כה אמר ה’ — This is what Hashem said. I love you. I want us to be friends again. I am a parent to you, not a distant judge, not an executioner, not a dictator. I treated you kindly when you were innocent, a downtrodden nation in the grips of Egypt, and I will treat you kindly again, even after you scorned My love and went astray from My path.
And why is that so? Because I believe you can come back. Because only by feeling your pain when punishment hits, I can remain close by afterwards as well, waiting for you to recover, and taking you back into My loving arms.
The Haftarah we read this week is not merely a warning or a rebuke. This is what prophets usually deliver in their message to the people, but this Haftarah is different. By sharing his feelings with us, G-d sets the tone for the healing process to start. He is telling us that in order to make peace, we need to work together. We need to understand each other, to understand where each of us is coming from, to feel each other’s pain, and to make a commitment to continue the journey together.
When things look grim and frustration and pain become overwhelming, G-d’s simple answer is: open up. Do share your pain. Talk about it. Identify it and own it. Own your mistakes. Ask yourself: have I done something wrong? Could I have done better? Could things be different, better, from now on? These are questions every psychologist will encourage you to ask yourself when dealing with pain or frustration. These are questions couples’ therapy promotes as staples, must-haves, for mending relationships. But this time, the questions don’t come from a human mouth; they come from G-d who, in this week’s Haftarah, undergoes therapy with us.
As humans, we are conditioned to believe that the lines between heaven and earth are definitive and unyielding. They cannot be blurred, they cannot be erased. The stories of the Bible reinforce that idea. Take the story of the Tower of Babel, for example, when people try to “build a tower with its top in the heavens”. The result and moral of the story is clear: don’t try this at home. G-d comes down and scatters the builders upon the face of the earth, their languages mixed and confused. Never again will humans try to cross the boundaries towards heaven, G-d’s domain. As the Psalm puts it: השמים שמיים לה’ והארץ נתן לבני אדם — “heavens are for G-d, and earth was given to mankind”.
But this week’s Haftarah qualifies that idea. We can, after all, cross into G-d’s domain. We just need to be invited, and to cross with the proper intent. Unlike the builders of Babel, this week we cross not to challenge G-d, but to share in His pain, to help Him understand, and to work together towards a resolution of the conflict. In one of his books, talking about the conflict between Jews and Arabs, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks put forth the following idea:
Peace is a duet, not a solo. It cannot be made by one side alone. If it could, it would have been made a long time ago. — Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
The same is true for peace between G-d and mankind. Both sides need to work hard to achieve it. We pray to G-d and share our pain, desires and ideals. In turn, He gives us a glimpse into His mind, and teaches us that it is ok to be frustrated and sad. You just have to figure out what to do with those feelings.
In Sefer Devarim, at the beginning of parshat Haazinu, the Torah describes G-d as follows:
הַצּוּר֙ תָּמִ֣ים פָּֽעֳל֔וֹ כִּ֥י כָל־דְּרָכָ֖יו מִשְׁפָּ֑ט אֵ֤-ל אֱמוּנָה֙ וְאֵ֣ין עָ֔וֶל צַדִּ֥יק וְיָשָׁ֖ר הֽוּא — The Rock!, perfect is His work, for all His paths are justice, a G-d of faith without iniquity, righteous and fair is He. — Deuteronomy 32:4
אין אול — Ein avel, “without iniquity”, G-d is called in that verse. But in this week’s Haftarah, the very same G-d, the One and Only, asks Himself מה מצאו אבותיכם בי אול (“ma matzu avoteichem bi avel”) — “What iniquity did your forefathers find in Me”? He knows very well the answer to the question — He is indeed perfect, after all — but He asks the question nevertheless: “What iniquity can be found in Me?” Maybe I need to do teshuvah? Maybe I need to show you through this how to start your own teshuvah?
In a majestic explanation on the verse in Devarim, Rashi explains that “ein avel” alludes to G-d’s ability to repay even the wicked for their good deeds. No good deed goes unpunished, says the proverb sarcastically. G-d has a better idea: “No good deed goes unrewarded!” Even when the world isn’t fair, G-d is. And it is this fairness, this pure desire to see good everywhere and reward it, that has G-d frustrated in this week’s Haftarah. It is this attribute of G-d that deeply needs to understand how all His miracles, all His acts of kindness toward the Jewish nation have been ignored, as people went astray from the path. It is this that creates all the frustration.
But in letting this frustration show in the words of the prophet, G-d also sets the tone for teshuvah. In sharing His frustration with the behavior of the Jews, G-d is prompting us to react: to cry, to pray, to change, to atone, to ask forgiveness. Something. In a nutshell, this Haftarah is the equivalent of G-d’s question to Adam in the Garden of Eden: איכה (“ayeka”) — “Where are you?” Don’t hide. Don’t run. I want to understand you. I want to forgive you. I want to help you change, help you become better.
It is not coincidental — I believe — that the name of the book we read on Tisha Be’Av, at the culmination of t’lata de puranyiuta, the three weeks and the nine days, is מגילת איכה. Commonly known as the Lamentations, the Hebrew name of the book, taken from its first verse, is a call for peace and the resolution of conflict. איכה doesn’t just mean “Oy, vey”, it also means “How?” How do we solve this? How do we go forth from here? How do we fix our relationship? Ayeka? Where are you? How can I help you come back?
It is this call, this conversation, this sense of sharing that transcends worlds and boundaries between them, that has maintained us as individuals and as a people throughout history. It is this willingness on G-d’s part to open His heart and pour out His soul to us, in the hope that we will reciprocate. It is this process and this dialogue that starts the healing, that contains — ממעמקים, in the midst of pain — the seeds of healing. השיבנו ה’ אליך ונשובה חדש ימינו כקדם we say at the end of Eicha. “Bring us back, G-d, and we will return, renew our days like those of old.” May it be G-d’s will that all our sorrows be removed, that all our pains be alleviated, and may we find our path back into G-d’s embrace, in consolation and in perfect faith, bimheira beyameinu!
Delivered at Beth Zion Congregation, Montreal
August 3, 2019 – Shabbat Matot-Masei
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