There is no literary connection between the torah reading of Pinchas and the designated haftarah- the connection is instead calendrical as this week we begin the cycle of haftarot that will take us to Tisha b’Av, the blackest day of our calendar – and from there to Rosh Hashanah, the day of our judgment and the new year.
The three shabbatot before Tisha b’Av each have a traditional special haftarah reading that deals with the punishment that will befall the people who forget the God of the covenant. They are known as t’lat d’fur’anuta’ the “three of affliction” or of rebuke. As we enter the first of the three, which signal not only the coming remembrance of the cataclysm that was Tisha b’Av, but also that we are on the run up now to Rosh Hashanah, we are provided with a good deal of food for thought as we must begin to measure ourselves and our lives, to try to comprehend the circumstances and environment in which we are living.
The prophet Jeremiah lived at the end of the 7th century BCE. The Northern Kingdom had been destroyed and its inhabitants dispersed and lost. Judah, the Southern Kingdom, was in danger of the same fate. Jeremiah recognised this, and he offered both despair and hope in his prophecy. The religious and social conditions of the time were not good – idolatry was rife, and Josiah’s reforms were partial and weak, and did not survive long after Josiah’s death. People were disconnected from the source of their religious traditions to the point where they even felt that the misfortunes of their country could have been caused by their not offering incense to other gods during the time of Josiah’s reforms. It is likely that there were even human sacrifices being offered at this time, justified as being a return to the true religion, a perversion of Judaism that appalled Jeremiah.
People were being stigmatized as being treacherous; they could not trust one another or build up strong relationships. Social injustice existed on all levels of society, and was barely even noted, so ordinary had it become to mistreat the poor in society. The world of Jeremiah is one we might recognise today, society breaking down, all kinds of fantasies floated as if they might be genuine, fake news and loss of trust in the leadership.
And what does Jeremiah talk about? He talks about contract, about the covenant that the Jews have with God, about how there is a special obligation of loyalty upon Israel, and that even if Israel does not offer this loyalty, even if destruction follows, the curious truth is that the special relationship between God and the Jews, implied by the covenant, will not be broken. In all of the despair he shines an odd ray of hope.
It is a strange conception that we have an unbreakable contract of obligation to God. It is almost impossible for us to imagine an agreement which, even if broken on both sides, remains binding. And yet it is at the heart of our history, it is our raison d’être and our aspiration. A Jew cannot repudiate the covenant for all time, even if we appear to despise it or ignore it. The obligation and the special relationship remain in place. I am reminded of the perennial Jewish complaint to God- “We realise that we are the chosen people, but can’t you just go and choose someone else for a change”. The answer, of course, is “even if I do, it doesn’t preclude Me from continuing to choose you!”
Reading Jeremiah is to know that we have an inescapable destiny. The folkloric Yiddish form – that something is bashert, that something is meant to happen in the grand scheme of things – has probably helped the Jewish people to get through all manner of crises. Yet Jeremiah, for all his despair at what is going on around him, is paradoxically aware both of a kind of predestination and of the critical importance that free will will have in any outcome – he is prophesying about the impact of the individual’s choices. He begins his prophecy in a way that shows he believed he had been called with by God: “before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. Before you were born, I set you apart. I have appointed you a prophet to the nations”
Jeremiah develops the twin concepts of predestination and free will. He rails at the people precisely because he knows that their chosen behaviour is dangerous and wrong, but that they can choose to behave a different way and different outcomes will occur. Predestination is not the same as determinism. As Mishnah Pirkei Avot comments: All may be foreseen, but freedom of choice is given” or as Mishnah Berachot frames it “everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven”: That is, whatever God may or may not perceive, it doesn’t have to mean that it will necessarily happen. Unlike the covenant which binds us eternally however many times we may break it, we do have the power to escape what may seem to be our destiny – even a small change in behaviour can lead to a massive change in outcome. It is in our hands to shape our lives.
Medieval philosophers understood this well. Maimonides comments that we enter the world with a variety of propensities and possibilities, but what use is made of them is our own doing. Modern science has come to the same conclusion – we may be able to map out a whole variety of genes, but we still can’t guarantee our predictions about the bearers of those genes – even genetically identical twins can live completely different lives.
We read the 3 haftarot of rebuke and affliction every year in the 3 weeks before we commemorate the anniversary of the destruction of the 1st and 2nd Temples. We can’t undo the history, but we can listen to the message – we know what is required of us, we know the likely outcome of our ignoring what God requires of us, we can change the future.
After Tisha b’Av our liturgical tradition decrees that there come 7 haftarot of consolation – more than double the words of warning and pain – a perfect number of weeks of grieving and moving on. From this Shabbat until Rosh Hashanah there are ten weeks of preparation, mirroring the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when the work we do from this period will intensify in urgency and feeling. The liturgical calendar is being carefully patterned and manipulated to encourage us on a religious journey towards new beginnings. The message is being hammered home – the covenant may be ignored or unfulfilled but it has not broken, we remain obliged to our relationship with God. Our future is foreseen in all its possibilities but we remain in charge of what will actually be – we have the choice to behave well, and if we choose not to do so we are well aware of the consequences. But even the consequences, dire as they may be, never rule out the possibility of change, of, to use a very old fashioned word – redemption. From the reading of the first haftarah of affliction until Rosh Hashanah we have ten weeks – the clock is ticking and, as we read in Pirkei Avot, “the work is great and the Master of the House is waiting.”