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The Second Haftarah of Suffering: Why?

Jeremiah 2: 2-28 3:4: Jeremiah’s first rebuke begins with a question from God to Israel: “What wrong did your forefathers find in me that they distanced themselves from Me, pursued after nothingness, and became nothingness?” (2:5)

Imagine a father abandoned by his children with no explanation. He constantly asks himself, “Why?” and is desperate to ask his children, “Why have you rejected me?” Is it possible to calculate his pain? I know a man who was abandoned by his wife. She simply disappeared into the mountains of Utah. He returned home one evening to an empty house and never heard from her again. He dreams at night of being able to ask her “Why?”

This is the first speech Jeremiah gave to the people of Jerusalem. He grabbed a few people on the street and demanded, “Let me ask you a question – a question from God: What did you find wrong in Me that made you reject me so?”

We often hear Jeremiah described as a frightening prophet. The word “Jeremiad” – A literary work or speech expressing a bitter lament or a righteous prophecy of doom – is derived from Jeremiah. This is not the Jeremiah we meet in this prophecy. This first scene of interaction between prophet and people resonates with God’s love for Israel, and His “pain”. Jeremiah walks through the streets of Jerusalem, grabs people and tells them that God wants to know why they have rejected Him?

Jeremiah’s question and prophecy offer a glimpse of the answer they did not have the courage to articulate. The people were searching for something that they could call their own. “… My people has perpetrated two evils: they have forsaken Me, the Source of Living Waters, to dig for themselves cisterns – broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” (2: 13)  Hear how this parallels the end of Jeremiah’s opening question: “… pursued after nothingness, and became nothingness.” (2:5)

They could have drunk long and hard from the Source of Living Waters, instead they chose nothingness – broken cisterns that could not hold water – and themselves became nothingness.

They did not want to drink; they had no thirst for God because the Source of Living Waters was hidden by their leaders: “The Kohanim did not say, ‘Where is God?’ – even those charged with teaching the Torah did not know Me; the shepherd-kings rebelled against Me; and the prophets prophesied in the name of Baal; and they went after that which cannot avail.” (2:8)

You rejected Me.

You did not want to quench your thirst with My waters. The people who assured you that you have the power to dig your own cisterns – and find your own water – have misdirected you. You feel vulnerable in Jerusalem – victimized – as the young lion of Babylon (2:15) approaches and roars threateningly. You feel as powerless as a slave and housemaid. (2:14) You want to dig your own wells and drink your hard-earned waters, and you will, but they will be on the road to exile in Egypt and Assyria. (2:18) You will feel ashamed, “as the shame of a thief when he is discovered,” (2:26) and all the waters of the world will not help you wash away the stain of having rejected Me. (2:22) You will worship wood and stone and finally, in your shame and distress, you will say, “Arise and save us.” (2:27)

Was it for this, these false beliefs and values, that you rejected Me?

Jeremiah is not rebuking Israel for specific sins as much as he holds them responsible for being unfaithful in their relationship with God. And today, as we reflect on why Israel had no thirst for the purest of waters in favor of nothingness, on how God did not arise to save Israel for it’s impending destruction, we still live the consequences of the question – why?

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