The Three Haftarot of Suffering – One: Fearing Our Greatness
Jeremiah 1:1-2:3: Poor Malvolio believed his mistress, Countess Olivia, to have written: “In my stars I am above thee; but be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. Thy fates open their hands; let thy blood and spirit embrace them.”
Perhaps a steward need not fear greatness when promised the love of his countess, but Jeremiah was hesitant, and his uncertainty and first shaky steps are an important part of his message to his people and to us as we begin the Three Weeks of Mourning.
“The word of God came to him in the days of Josiah, Jehoiakim, until the end of the eleventh year of Zedekiah, until Jerusalem was exiled in the fifth month.” (1:2-3) He began to prophecy just when Israel was poised for a period of spiritual renewal and Teshuva – Restoration of their relationship with God, and his career ended in the smoldering ruins of the Temple and Jerusalem with his people in exile in far away Babylon. His life was tumultuous. He soared with Josiah, was imprisoned by another king, abused by his people, ignored and blamed, and finally he was witness to the destruction of everything holy and good. His words gave hope to many in the Babylonian exile, but he had n hope of his own.
“Before I formed you in the belly I knew you, and before you left the womb I sanctified you. I established you as a prophet unto the nations.” He was a Cohen, striving for spiritual clarity. One day God appeared to him to inform Jeremiah that he was destined before he was born to be a prophet to the nations. His life was not his own. What would we say upon hearing such a message from God? How would we feel upon hearing that we were born with a destiny to speak and teach the nations?
“Alas, my Master, The Lord, God, see, I do not know how to speak for I am just a youth!” (1:6) The news was overwhelming: How does a youth change from an above average young man to being a prophet to the nations in just a moment?
“Then God said to me, ‘Do not say, ‘I am just a youth’: rather, wherever I shall send you, you shall go, and whatever I shall command you, you shall speak. Do not fear them, for I am with you to rescue you.”(1:7-8)
I don’t know about you, but when I hear, “Do not fear,” and “I will rescue you,” I suspect that something will happen to cause me to fear and need rescue. It certainly seems strange to say such things to someone who feels, “I am just a youth and I do not know how to speak.”
“Then God extended His hand and touched my mouth, and God said to me, ‘Behold I have placed My words in your mouth. See, I have appointed you this day over the nations and over the kingdoms, to uproot and to smash, and to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” (1:9-10)
God reassures Jeremiah only to intimidate him again. Why did God not use words similar to Maria’s forgery to Malvolio: “In my stars I am above thee; but be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. Thy fates open their hands; let thy blood and spirit embrace them,”?
It almost seems as if God intended for Jeremiah to fear his newfound greatness and role. The prophet included this process in this prophecy, which implies that there is a message for Israel as well.
Jeremiah’s initiation continued: “What do you see Jeremiah?” (Verse 11) The new prophet sees an image and must describe what he senses it to be. (Radak) If he is correct; he will have to assume the role of the prophet who will “uproot and to smash, and to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant”. He can free himself of the burden of his destiny by answering incorrectly. But he answers as he should, “I see a staff of an almond tree.” He did not know what it was. There was no sign indicating that the staff he saw came from a specific tree. He had to trust his senses, and by doing so, accept his new role, and that his life was no longer his own.
Jeremiah’s introduction includes destiny, intimidation, fear, reassurance, demands and support. God challenged the young prophet to assume his great role despite the fear, intimidation, and demands. This was the message to Jeremiah’s generation and to ours.
Jeremiah’s contemporaries well understood God’s demands. He promised them greatness and destiny but demanded that they accept all the concomitant demands of standing up to the world, of building a unique society. The people did not answer as did Jeremiah. They did not want the demands even at the cost of forfeiting the greatness and destiny.
The Three Weeks between the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha B’Av remind us of all the suffering we have experienced over the long course of history. “I recall for you the kindness of your youth, the love of your nuptials, your following Me into the Wilderness.” (2:2) The demands began as we left Egypt, even before we were a nation that could understand our destiny. We recall the price of living with a sense of destiny and we hesitate.
Jeremiah teaches us that although we may hesitate, we must accept the demands that come with our destiny to, “to uproot and to smash, and to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” Only then will we experience, “Israel is holy to God, the first of His crop. All who devour it will be held guilty; evil shall come upon them – The word of God”. (2:3)