(D’var Torah prepared for Erev Shabbat – Matot-Massei and its accompanying Haftarah from Jeremiah.)
I. Last year I devoted my religious blog entirely to writing about the nexus each week between the Torah portion and its companion haftarah. One realization of this work that was especially striking to me was how much the haftarah actually supports and reinforces the parashah, and vice versa. I’m still not exactly sure how that happens, but it frequently and wondrously does.
II. I see three particular messages that flow back and forth from parashah to haftarah this week. But, before we get to them, let’s understand the general setting.
A. In Torah, we’re now in the concluding chapters of B’midbar, in the double portion of Matot and Massei. The people are on the verge of entering the land, and so very hopeful. Can you imagine the excitement they must have felt? The anticipation? The readiness?
B. Yet, in the haftarah, in Jeremiah, we instantly move forward several centuries, only to find an incredibly different landscape. Here instead of hope, promise and God-ward intention, we find hypocrisy, corruption, and oncoming despair and desolation.
C. On this Shabbat, we have both texts in front of us – one, expressive of a moment of great hope, on the cusp of grand fulfillment; and the other, reflective of abandonment by the people of their God, with a sense of their being on the edge of losing it all.
What in the world happened to precipitate such a decline? What does it mean for us? Is there any basis for hope in this sad story?
Let’s take a look.
III. In Jeremiah, God lets us know immediately how far the people have fallen: “What wrong did your forefathers find in Me, that they distanced them from Me…? I brought you into a fruitful land; but you came and contaminated my land, and made my heritage an abomination.”
How could this have happened?
Perhaps we can find clues by looking back and forth from the Torah text and the haftarah.
A. First, both texts evidence the importance of sound, principled, God-oriented leadership to a community’s wellbeing.
1. How does our double Torah portion begin? Moses speaks to the rahshay hamatot, to the heads of the tribes, giving them crucial instructions as to how to determine the validity of vows and the means of honoring them.
Moses is preparing the next generation of leaders, teaching them in the use of both righteousness and mercy in guiding the people’s affairs.
There’s a sense that while vows are important in and of themselves, the regulation and implementation of vows is representative of all the work that leaders must do and do well.
2. This theme of leadership’s importance also plays out in Moses’ complex negotiations with the Gadites and the Reubenites, with respect to their desire for land in separate territories.
This request was controversial and complicated. Some argued then, and some still do, that the request was wrong-headed and should not have been approved.
Yet, Moses works with the tribe’s leaders respectfully to find common ground. The two tribes commit militarily to help the community over time in taking the land, and they, in turn, are allowed to fulfill their ambitions.
3. At the end of Massei, we see again the vital importance of good leaders. The daughters of Zelophehad advocate, in the absence of male heirs, for their retaining the inheritance of their father.
With God’s help, Moses and the daughters work, as good leaders do, to reach just and righteous ends.
4. But, when we turn to the haftarah, what do find has happened to the community’s leadership as time has passed? The leaders have failed totally. Far worse than merely missing the mark in their duties and assignments, those in power seem to be altogether disconnected from God.
Listen to God’s indictment of the leaders: “Those charged with teaching the Torah did not know Me.” They, the Kohanim, the prophets, and the shepherds “went after those that cannot avail.” The house of Israel has been shamed – “they, their kings, their princes, their priests, and their prophets.”
5. The Torah is absolutely fastidious in teaching the essential place for true leadership in guiding the community.
Yet, in Jeremiah, no strong, principled leaders are to be found. Rather, it’s an awful, ungodly, and corrupt leadership that has been singularly instrumental in bringing Judah to the verge of a calamitous end.
B. In a second respect in which both texts – together – teach us vital lessons, we see how crucial it is for the people to experience, remember, and honor the ways of deliverance by which God has brought us to His service.
1. What do we find at the beginning of Massei? All the stops of the entire desert route from Egypt to the Promised Land are enumerated. Why?
Whether it was our people’s journey from Egypt to the Promised Land way back then or our spiritual journey from narrowness to Godliness in our own time, we’re to keep God’s blessings of the markers on our path clearly in mind and treasure them forever.
These moments are miraculous and deserve to be as valued long after the journey is complete as they were during its course.
2. Yet, did our people, as recorded in Jeremiah, remember and honor those markers?
No! To the contrary, they seemed prepared to go back to the very place, Egypt, where their ancestors had been held in bondage. “And now what is there for you on the road to Egypt, to drink the waters of the Nile?”
God broke off our yoke, and we pledged not to transgress, “but on every lofty hill and under every leafy tree,” they reclined “as a harlot,” bringing on the most awful consequences.
IV. To our great relief and glory, there’s a third aspect in which the two texts resonate of each other.
The haftarah blessedly doesn’t end with the gloom of the pain our forebears experienced as a result of misbehavior in leadership, ingratitude for miracles, and going down wrong paths.
It’s as if those who established this haftarah would not allow us to go away hopeless.
A. Sephardim remember that if we “return,” “remove detestable things” and “do not waver,” and “’swear as the Lord lives,’ in sincerity, justice, and righteousness – Nations shall bless themselves” by us.
B. Ashkenazim add: “If only from now on,” we would call God “My Father,” “You are the master of my youth.”
Today we have both texts in front of us – in one, there’s the hope of approaching the Promised Land in God’s ways, and, in the other, there’s the punishment Jeremiah prophesied for straying from those ways. So, what are we to make of it?
V. Can there be hope again after hope has been lost? What can be done to revive it?
A. First, we have the model of Moses’ leadership. We can lead in our own lives as he did in his. We can learn about vows, fulfill them and lead others to do so, too. We can lead by working with others to reach mutually satisfactory solutions to our problems.
B. We can remember our journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. And we can, through memory, exhibit gratitude for those and the many blessings that God has bestowed upon us. How very different life can be for the one who is grateful for God’s gifts.
C. And, finally, we can relish and utilize God’s extraordinary gift to us of teshuvah. “If only from now on,” we turn and dedicate ourselves to the ways of Torah, we can, as Rashi teaches, return to our original glory and greatness.