Texts for Rabbi Adler’s class

 

2015-2016 Session 6

Deep Loneliness and Sublime Joy

 
LONELINESS
 
Jeremiah 11:19
The LORD informed me, and I knew– then You let me see their deeds. For I was like a docile lamb led to the slaughter; I did not realize that it was against me they fashioned their plots: “Let us destroy the tree with its fruit, let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name be remembered no more.”
 
Jeremiah 15:15-18
O LORD, you know — remember me and take thought of me, avenge me on those who persecute me; do not yield to Your patience, do not let me perish! Consider how I have borne insult on Your account. When Your words were offered, I devoured them; Your word brought me the delight and joy of knowing that Your name is attached to me, O LORD, God of Hosts. I have not sat in the company of revelers and made merry! I have sat lonely because of Your hand upon me, for You have filled me with gloom. Why must my pain be endless, my wound incurable, resistant to healing? You have been to me like a spring that fails, like waters that cannot be relied on.
 
Jeremiah 20:7-9
You enticed me, O LORD, and I was enticed; You overpowered me and You prevailed. I have become a constant laughingstock, everyone jeers at me. For every time I speak, I must cry out, must shout, “Lawlessness and rapine!” For the word of the LORD causes me constant disgrace and contempt. I thought, “I will not mention Him; no more will I speak in His name”– but [His word] was like a raging Vire in my heart, shut up in my bones; I could not hold it in, I was helpless.
   
JOY
 
Isaiah 65:17-29
For behold! I am creating a new heaven and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered, they shall never come to mind. Be glad, then, and rejoice forever in what I am creating. For I shall create Jerusalem as a joy, and her people as a delight; and I will rejoice in Jerusalem and delight in her people. Never again shall be heard there the sounds of weeping and wailing. No more shall there be an infant or graybeard who does not live out his days. He who dies at a hundred years shall be reckoned a youth, and he who fails to reach a hundred shall be reckoned accursed. They shall build houses and dwell in them, they shall plant vineyards and enjoy their fruit. They shall not build for others to dwell in, or plant for others to enjoy. For the days of My people shall be as long as the days of a tree, My chosen ones shall outlive the work of their hands. They shall not toil to no purpose; they shall not bear children for terror, but they shall be a people blessed by the LORD, and their offspring shall remain with them. Before they pray, I will answer; while they are still speaking, I will respond. The wolf and the lamb shall graze together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and the serpent’s food shall be earth. In all My sacred mount nothing evil or vile shall be done — said the LORD.
 
Joel 2:23-27
O children of Zion, be glad, rejoice in the LORD your God. For He has given you the early rain in [His] kindness, now He makes the rain fall [as] formerly– the early rain and the late– and threshing floors shall be piled with grain, and vats shall overflow with new wine and oil. I will repay you for the years consumed by swarms and hoppers, by grubs and locusts, the great army I let loose against you. And you shall eat your Vill and praise the name of the LORD your God who dealt so wondrously with you– My people shall be shamed no more. And you shall know that I am in the midst of Israel: that I the LORD am your God and there is no other. And My people shall be shamed no more.
 
Zephaniah 3:17-20
Your God the LORD is in your midst, a warrior who brings triumph. He will rejoice over you and be glad, He will shout over you with song. He will soothe with His love those long disconsolate. I will take away from you the woe over which you endured mockery. At that time I will make [an end] of all who afflicted you. And I will rescue the lame [sheep] and gather the strayed; and I will exchange their disgrace for fame and renown in all the earth. At that time I will gather you, and at [that] time I will bring you [home]; for I will make you renowned and famous among all the peoples on earth, when I restore your fortunes before their very eyes — said the LORD.
 
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When a prophet learned of God’s plan to undo His people, he was Villed with dread and pain concerning his countrymen, yet at the same time with anger at them for casting God behind them. He felt lonely because his repeated calls for the people to return to God brought him mockery and even imprisonment.
When the prophet learned of God’s plan to forgive and bless His people, he was elated about his countrymen, and happy for them over their repentance at returning to the worship of God. He felt joyful because the messenger of God, and thus God Himself, was now accorded respect.
Taking their cue from the Bible, our Sages go even further. Not only do the people and the prophet experience God’s plans intensely — so does God Himself! A bold midrash (Ekhah Rabbah, P’tihta 24) portrays God mourning for His people, who have lost their Temple and their land, and blaming Himself:
“On that day my Lord God of hosts summoned to weeping and lamentating” (Isaiah 22:12) — At the time when the Holy and Blessed One sought to destroy the Temple, He said, “So long as I am in its midst, the nations of the world will not touch it; but I will close My eyes so as not to see it, and swear that I will not attach Myself to it until the time of the end arrives.” Then the enemy came and destroyed it. The Holy and Blessed One swore by His right hand and placed it behind Him. So it is written, “He has withdrawn His right hand from before the foe; He has ravaged Jacob like Vlaming Vire, consuming on all sides” (Lamentations 2:3 ). At that time the enemy entered the Temple and burned it. When it was burned, the Holy and Blessed One said, “I no longer have a dwelling-place in this land; I will withdraw My Sh’chinah from it and ascend to My former habitation.” So it is written, “I will will return to My abode till they realize their guilt. In their distress, they will seek Me and beg for My favor” (Hosea 5:15). At that time the Holy and Blessed One wept and said, “Woe is Me! What have I done? I caused My Sh’chinah to dwell below on earth for the sake of Israel, but now that they have sinned, I have returned to My former habitation. Heaven forfend that I become a laughing-stock to the nations and a byword to human beings!” At that time Metatron [the chief of angels] came, fell upon his face, and spoke before the Holy and Blessed One: “Sovereign of the Universe, let me weep, but do not Yourself weep.” He replied to him, ‘”If you do not let Me weep now, I will repair to a place which you have no permission to enter, and will weep there,” as it is said, “But if you will not give heed, My soul must weep in secret” (Jeremiah 13:17).
The Holy and Blessed One said to the Ministering Angels, ”Come, let us go together and see what the enemy has done in My house.” Forthwith the Holy and Blessed One and the Ministering Angels went, Jeremiah leading the way. When the Holy and Blessed One saw the Temple, He said, “Surely this is My house and this is My resting-place into which enemies have come, and they have done with it whatever they wished.” At that time the Holy and Blessed One wept and said, “Woe is Me for My house! My children, where are you? My priests, where are you? My loving ones, where are you? What shall I do with you, seeing that I warned you but you did not repent?” The Holy and Blessed One said to Jeremiah, “I am now like a man who had an only son, for whom he prepared a marriage canopy, but [the son] died under it. Do you feel no anguish for Me and My children? Go, summon Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and Moses from their tombs, for they know how to weep.” He spoke before Him: ‘”Sovereign of the Universe, I donot know where Moses is buried.” The Holy and Blessed One replied to him: “Go,stand by the bank of the Jordan, and raise your voice and call out, ‘Son of Amram,son of Amram, arise and behold your Vlock which enemies have devoured.’”
There and then Jeremiah went to the cave of Machpelah and said to the patriarchs of the world, “Arise, for the time has come when your presence is required before the Holy and Blessed One.” They said to him, “For what purpose?” He answered, “I do not know,” because he was afraid lest they say, “In your lifetime has such a thing happened to our children!” [i.e., you did not prevent it by bringing them to t’shuvah]. Jeremiah left them and stood by the bank of the Jordan and called out, ‘”Son of Amram, son of Amram, arise, the time has come when your presence is required before the Holy and Blessed One.” He said to him, “How is this day different from other days that my presence is required before the Holy and Blessed One?” Jeremiah replied, ‘”I do not know.” Moses left him and proceeded to the Ministering Angels, whom he recognised from the time of the giving of the Torah. He said to them, “O heavenly ministers, do you know why my presence is required before the Holy One?” They replied, ‘”Son of Amram, do you not know that the Temple is destroyed and Israel has gone into exile?” He cried aloud and wept until he reached the patriarchs. They immediately also rent their garments, placed their hands upon their heads, and cried out and wept until they arrived at the gates of the Temple. As soon as the Holy and Blessed One saw them, “my Lord God of Hosts summoned to weeping and lamenting, to tonsuring and girding with sackcloth“ (Isaiah 22:12). Were it not explicitly stated in Scripture, it would be impossible to say such a thing, but they went weeping from one gate to another like a man whose dead is lying before him, the Holy and Blessed One lamenting, “Woe to the King Who succeeded in His youth but failed in His old age!”

 

2015-2016 Session 4

The Runaway Prophet

 

Moses, who is called the father of all prophets, begins his career as a shepherd who pauses one day to watch a desert bush that burns but is not consumed. Suddenly, God speaks, ordering him to go to Egypt and liberate the Israelite people from servitude. Does Moses leap to it? No. He begs God to choose someone else, taking up his commission solely in response to God’s unconditional command.

Jeremiah (20:9) complains of his sense of frustration and failure at constantly prophesying the destruction of the kingdom of Judah and the exile of its people, only to have the people ridicule him and remain unrepentant. He muses:

“I will not mention Him; no more will I speak in His name”– but [His word] was like a raging fire in my heart, shut up in my bones; I could not hold it in, I was helpless.

Isaiah (6:8), when asked by God, “Whom shall I send?” replies, “Here am I! Send me!” Yet no sooner does he accept his prophetic commission than God charges him (Isaiah 6:9-10):

“Go, say to that people: “Hear, indeed, but do not understand; see, indeed, but do not grasp.” Dull that people’s mind, stop its ears, and seal its eyes– lest, seeing with its eyes, and hearing with its ears, it also grasp with its mind, and repent and save itself.”

He is stunned: his first prophecy, full of bitter irony, bodes certain war and exile for the nation. Having been ordered to preach repentance to a doomed people, he asks (Isaiah 6:11-12):

“How long [must I go on with this], my Lord?” And [God] replied: “Till towns lie waste without inhabitants, and houses without people, and the ground lies waste and desolate– for the LORD will banish the population– and deserted sites are many in the midst of the land.

To forestall utter despair, God adds (Isaiah 6:13):

“But while a tenth part yet remains in it, it shall repent. It shall be ravaged like the terebinth and the oak, of which stumps are left even when they are felled: its stump shall be a holy seed.

The prophets did not seek their role; Gods laid it on them. In response to God, they went forth and battled cruelty, injustice, corruption and pagan worship, with no weapons other than their voices.
 
One prophet, however, stoutly refused. His name was Yonah ben Amittai — Jonah — and when God sent him on a mission to preach repentance to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, he ran away. Thinking to escape God’s Presence by leaving God’s holy land, he took passage on a ship bound for another land. God caused a mighty storm on the sea. Jonah went down into the hold and fell asleep: if he couldn’t escape God on the ship, he would escape God by sleeping inside it. The sailors try to keep the ship afloat but it is on the verge of foundering. The ship’s captain rouses Jonah and urges him to pray to his God, just as the other people on the ship are praying to their gods. Jonah confesses to him that he himself is the cause of the deadly storm because he is a Hebrew fleeing from his God, the creator of heaven and earth. He tells the captain that the only way to calm the sea would be to cast him overboard. Rather than do that, the crew rows harder to bring the ship about, but is unable to do so. Praying that Jonah’s God hold them blameless for what they are about to do, they cast Jonah overboard and the sea grows calm. “The men feared the LORD greatly; they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and they made vows” (Jonah 1:16).

Jonah sinks down into the deep — in death, he would at last escape the Presence of God. God, however, causes a giant fish to swallow Jonah. There in the belly of the fish, Jonah realizes that he is now between life and death, and that he no longer wants to die. He prays (Jonah 2:3-7):

“I thought I was driven away out of Your sight: would I ever gaze again upon Your holy Temple? The waters closed in over me, the deep engulfed me. Weeds twined around my head. I sank to the base of the mountains; the bars of the earth closed upon me forever. Yet You brought my life up from the pit, O LORD my God.”

The fish spews Jonah out, and God tells him to go on to Nineveh and preach repentance to them. Jonah goes to the center of the city and warns the people that, unless they repent, the city will be destroyed in forty days. We are told (Jonah 3:5-9):

The people of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast, and great and small alike put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his robe, put on sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he had the word cried through Nineveh: “By decree of the king and his nobles: No man or beast– of flock or herd– shall taste anything! They shall not graze, and they shall not drink water! They shall be covered with sackcloth– man and beast– and shall cry mightily to God. Let everyone turn back from his evil ways and from the injustice of which he is guilty. Who knows but that God may turn and relent? He may turn back from His wrath, so that we do not perish.”

The result (Jonah 3:10): “God saw what they did, how they were turning back from their evil ways. And God renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon them, and did not carry it out.”

Having made a rudimentary sukkah for himself outside the city, Jonah waits the forty days to see if the city will be destroyed. When he sees that it is still there, he cries out to God (Jonah 4:2):

“O LORD! Isn’t this just what I said when I was still in my own country? That is why I fled beforehand to Tarshish. For I know that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment. Please, LORD, take my life, for I would rather die than live.”

God causes a lush plant to provide Jonah with added shade; Jonah rejoices. While he sleeps, God causes a worm to wither the plant, and when the hot sun rises, Jonah cries out, “I would rather die than live.” God responds (Jonah 4:10-11):

You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight. And should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well?

Why is Jonah set on escaping God’s commission? Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, an enemy kingdom that eventually conquered Israel and exiled its people. Jonah may have felt that Nineveh ought to be destroyed in its sinfulness so that Israel would no longer be threatened by it.

Some link the book of Jonah with a passage in the Book of Kings (2 Kings 14:25): “It was [King Jeroboam son of Joash of Israel] who restored the territory of Israel from Lebohamath to the sea of the Arabah, in accordance with the promise that the LORD, the God of Israel, had made through His servant, the prophet Jonah son of Amittai from Gath.” They argue that, when Jonah’s prophecy of doom for Israel failed to come true, he was ridiculed as a false prophet. When he was later told to prophesy doom for Nineveh, he refused lest he again be ridiculed as a false prophet, were the Ninevites to repent. It is interesting to note that, in the very act of fleeing from God’s commission, Jonah inadvertently turns pagans into God-fearers: “[The sailors] cried out to the LORD: ‘Oh, please, LORD, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not hold us guilty of killing an innocent person! For You, O LORD, by Your will, have brought this about.’ And they heaved Jonah overboard, and the sea stopped raging. The men feared the LORD greatly; they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and they made vows” (Jonah 1:14-16). In the very act of fleeing God’s commission, Jonah becomes the accidental prophet.

Why does Jonah complain about Gods being “a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment”? Aren’t those qualities deserving of praise rather than complaint? As far as Jonah was concerned, those qualities, when applied to Nineveh, would signal that God is a pushover: just say you’re sorry, He’ll forgive you, and you can continue to pursue your goal of conquering Israel. (Our Sages teach that God judges our present deeds, not those that we may do in the future; repentance and change are always possible. Cf. Rashi on Genesis 21:17, s.v. baasher hu sham.“)

Whereas other prophets would have been overjoyed had the calamities they foresaw been averted by the people’s repentance, Jonah is angered by the news. Why is this so? Other prophets spoke to Israel in the sincere hope that they would repent and be spared; if their hope was realized, they would rejoice. Jonah, on the other hand, was commanded to speak to Assyria, Israel’s enemy. When Nineveh was spared, Jonah was angry because he felt certain that the Assyrians would now go back to the work of conquering Israel.

In what sense do the people of Nineveh “not yet know their right hand from their left”? They don’t know right from wrong, and need to be taught. It would be the prophet’s role to teach them by warning them of impending disaster, moving them to repent and be spared, and using their new-found reverence for God to make them amenable to God’s values.

Why is God’s question at the end of the book left unanswered? It is a rhetorical queston, whose implied answer is “Of course!” Whereas Jonah did not create the plant, God created the Ninevites. God is concerned about Israel, but He is concerned about other peoples as well.

God in the Book of Jonah is a teacher, whose student is Jonah. The Book of Jonah is the haftarah for the Yom Kippur Minhah service because it demonstrates that God’s mercy is available to all.

 
 

2015-2016 Session 3

Speaking Truth to Power: The Danger

 

From the roof of his palace, David sees a beautiful woman bathing and desires her. Learning that she is the wife of Uriah the Hittite, one of his own soldiers, he nevertheless has her brought to him, sleeps with her and sends her home. Later learning that she is pregnant, David summons Uriah to go home to his wife and spend some time with her, so that Uriah will be thought the baby’s father. Uriah, however, refuses to go home to his wife while his comrades in arms are waging war. David therefore orderes his army commander, Joab, to place Uriah in the thickest part of the battle so that he will be killed. Joab complies, and Uriah is killed. The Bible tells us:

 
2 Samuel 12:1-13
The LORD was displeased with what David had done, and the LORD sent [the prophet] Nathan to David. He came to him and said, “There were two men in the same city, one rich and one poor. The rich man had very large flocks and herds, but the poor man had only one little ewe lamb that he had bought. He tended it and it grew up together with him and his children:it used to share his morsel of bread, drink from his cup, and nestle in his bosom; it was like a daughter to him. One day, a traveler came to the rich man, but he was loath to take anything from his own flocks or herds to prepare a meal for the guest who had come to him; so he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.” David flew into a rage against the man, and said to Nathan, “As the LORD lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He shall pay for the lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and showed no pity.” And Nathan said to David, “That man is you! Thus said the LORD, the God of Israel: ‘It was I who anointed you king over Israel and it was I who rescued you from the hand of Saul. I gave you your master’s house and possession of your master’s wives; and I gave you the House of Israel and Judah; and if that were not enough, I would give you twice as much more. Why then have you flouted the command of the LORD and done what displeases Him? You have put Uriah the Hittite to the sword; you took his wife and made her your wife and had him killed by the sword of the Ammonites. Therefore the sword shall never depart from your House — because you spurned Me by taking the wife of Uriah the Hittite and making her your wife. ‘ Thus said the LORD:‘I will make a calamity rise against you from within your own house; I will take your wives and give them to another man before your very eyes and he shall sleep with your wives under this very sun. You acted in secret, but I will make this happen in the sight of all Israel and in broad daylight.'” David said to Nathan, “I stand guilty before the LORD.”
 
Although David repents and God spares his life, he will be troubled for the rest of his life by the usurpation plots and counter-plots that characterize kingship. God is saying to him, in effect, “Though I forgive David the man, I must make an example of David the king. I had wanted you to be a new and better kind of ruler, one who exemplifies loyalty to Me and to My laws, but because you behaved instead like a petty potentate, you will be treated like one.”
By forcing David to confront his sin, Nathan risks his life: kings are not in the habit of listening to subjects who point their faults out to them. David, however, acknowledges his sin and accepts whatever retribution God may plan for him. For the rest of his life he fights to put down attempted coups, even one by his son Absalom. The reason Nathan is not executed for lese majeste is that the king whom he confrontis is David, a man who takes the words of God’s prophets seriously. (Penitential psalms later express David’s lifelong penitence and his turning to God for help.)
Later prophets, however, continually faced danger for bringing their kings unpleasant news:
 
1 Kings 22
There was a lull of three years, with no war between Aram [i.e., Syria] and Israel. In the third year, King Jehoshaphat of Judah came to visit the king of Israel [and form an alliance]. The king of Israel said to his courtiers, “You know that Ramoth- gilead belongs to us, and yet we do nothing to recover it from the hands of the king of Aram.” And he said to Jehoshaphat, “Will you come with me to do battle at Ramoth-gilead?” Jehoshaphat answered the king of Israel, “I will do what you do; my troops shall be your troops, my horses shall be your horses.” But Jehoshaphat said further to the king of Israel, “Please, Oirst inquire of the LORD.” So the king of Israel gathered the [court] prophets, about four hundred men, and asked them, “Shall I march upon Ramoth- gilead for battle, or shall I not?” “March,” they said, “and the Lord will deliver [it] into Your Majesty’s hands.” Then Jehoshaphat asked, “Isn’t there another prophet of the LORD here through whom we can imquire?” And the king of Israel answered Jehoshaphat, “There is one more man through whom we can inquire of the LORD; but I hate him, because he never prophesies anything good for me, but only misfortune—Micaiah son of Imlah.” But King Jehoshaphat said, “Don’t say that, Your Majesty.” So the king of Israel summoned an ofOicer and said, “Bring Micaiah son of Imlah at once.”
The king of Israel and King Jehoshaphat of Judah were seated on their thrones, arrayed in their robes, on the threshing Oloor at the entrance of the gate of Samaria; and all the prophets were prophesying before them. Zedekiah son of Chenaanah had provided himself with iron horns; and he said, “Thus said the LORD:With these you shall gore the Arameans till you make an end of them.” And all the other prophets were prophesying similarly, “March upon Ramoth-gilead and triumph! The LORD will deliver it into Your Majesty’s hands.” The messenger who had gone to summon Micaiah said to him: “Look, the words of the prophets are with one accord favorable to the king. Let your word be like that of the rest of them; speak a favorable word.” “As the LORD lives,” Micaiah answered, “I will speak only what the LORD tells me.” When he came before the king, the king said to him, “Micaiah, shall we march upon Ramoth-gilead for battle, or shall we not?” He answered him, “March and triumph! The LORD will deliver [it] into Your Majesty’s hands.” The king said to him, “How many times must I adjure you to tell me nothing but the truth in the name of the LORD?” Then he said, “I saw all Israel scattered over the hills like sheep without a shepherd; and the LORD said, ‘These have no master; let everyone return to his home in safety.'” “Didn’t I tell you,” said the king of Israel to Jehoshaphat, “that he would not prophesy good fortune for me, but only misfortune?” But [Micaiah] said, “I call upon you to hear the word of the LORD! I saw the LORD seated upon His throne, with all the host of heaven standing in attendance to the right and to the left of Him. The LORD asked, ‘Who will entice [King] Ahab so that he will march and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ Then one said thus and another said thus, until a certain spirit came forward and stood before the LORD and said, ‘I will entice him. ‘‘How?’ the LORD asked him. And he replied, ‘I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets. Then He said, ‘You will entice and you will prevail. Go out and do it.’ So the LORD has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these prophets of yours; for the LORD has decreed disaster upon you.”
Thereupon Zedekiah son of Chenaanah stepped up and struck Micaiah on the cheek, and demanded, “Which way did the spirit of the LORD pass from me to speak with you?” And Micaiah replied, “You’ll find out on the day when you try to hide [from the enemy] in the innermost room .” Then the king of Israel said, “Take Micaiah and turn him over to Amon, the city’s governor, and to Prince Joash, and say, ‘The king’s orders are: Put this fellow in prison, and let his fare be scant bread and scant water until I come home safe.'” To which Micaiah retorted, “If you ever come home safe, the LORD has not spoken through me.”
 
Amos 7:10-17
Amaziah, the priest of Bethel [Samaria’s principal paganized altar], sent this message to King Jeroboam of Israel: “Amos is conspiring against you within the House of Israel. The country cannot endure the things he is saying. For Amos has said, ‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel shall be exiled from its soil.'” Amaziah also said to Amos, “Seer, off with you to the land of Judah! Earn your living there, and do your prophesying there. But don’t ever prophesy again at Bethel; for it is a king’s sanctuary and a royal palace.” Amos answered Amaziah:”I am not a prophet, and I am not a prophet’s disciple. I am a cattle breeder and a tender of sycamore Oigs. But the LORD took me away from following the flock,and the LORD said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to My people Israel.’ And so, hear the word of the LORD. You say I must not prophesy about the House of Israel or preach about the House of Isaac; but this, I swear, is what the LORD said: Your wife shall play the harlot in the town, your sons and daughters shall fall by the sword, and your land shall be divided up with a measuring line. And you yourself shall die on unclean soil; for Israel shall be exiled from its soil.
 
Jeemiah 38:1-6
King Zedekiah [of Judah] gave instructions to lodge Jeremiah in the prison compound and to supply him daily with a loaf of bread from the Bakers’ Street –until all the bread in the city was gone [because of famine during the siege of Jerusalem]. Jeremiah remained in the prison compound. Shephatiah son of Mattan, Gedaliah son of Pashhur, Jucal son of Shelemiah, and Pashhur son of Malchiah heard what Jeremiah was saying to all the people: “Thus said the LORD:Whoever remains in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence; but whoever surrenders to the Chaldeans shall live; he shall at least gain his life and shall live. Thus said the LORD: This city shall be delivered into the hands of the king of Babylon’s army, and he shall capture it.”

Then the officials said to the king, “Let that man be put to death, for he disheartens the soldiers, and all the people who are left in this city, by speaking such things to them. That man is not seeking the welfare of this people, but their harm!” King Zedekiah replied, “He is in your hands; the king cannot oppose you in anything!”
So they took Jeremiah and put him down in the pit of Malchiah, the king’s son, which was in the prison compound; they let Jeremiah down by ropes. There was no water in the pit, only mud, and Jeremiah sank into the mud.
 
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Speaking truth to power was, and often still is, dangerous to the spokespeson. For boldly saying what God told them to say, the prophets often suffered painful consequences. Zechariah and Malachi refer to their respective prophecies as “masa d’var HaShem, the burden of the word of the LORD.”
   

 

2015-2016 Session 2

Politics, Economics, and God

 

Amos 2:6-8
“Thus said the LORD: For three transgressions of Israel, for four, I will not revoke it: because they have sold for silver those whose cause was just, and the needy for a pair of sandals. [Ah,] you who trample the heads of the poor into the dust of the ground, and make the humble walk a twisted course! Father and son go to the same girl, and thereby profane My holy name. They recline by every altar on garments taken in pledge, and drink in the house of their god wine bought with fines they imposed.”

Amos rails against a tangled cycle of villainy: The rich and powerful subvert justice by convicting the innocent and Lining them into poverty, forcing them to go astray out of desperation. They profane God’s name by engaging in pagan worship, reclining on garments taken in pledge as they wallow in cultic orgies, and offering pagan altar libations of wine. Everything was purchased with the ill-gotten fines they imposed on the innocent.

*****

Amos 6:1-8
“Woe to you who are at ease in Zion, and you who feel secure on the hill of Samaria, notables of [Israel,] foremost of the nations, to whom the house of Israel come! Cross over to Calneh and see, go from there to Great Hamath, and go down to Gath of the Philistines: are [you] better than those kingdoms, or is their territory larger than yours? Yet you ward off [the thought of] a day of woe and convene a session of lawlessness.

They lie on ivory beds, lolling on their couches, feasting on lambs from the flock and on calves from the stalls. They hum snatches of song to the tune of the lute
– they account themselves musicians like David. They drink [straight] from the wine bowls and anoint themselves with the choicest oils but they are not concerned about the ruin of Joseph [i.e., Israel,the northern kingdom]. Assuredly, right soon they shall head the column of exiles; they shall loll no more at festive meals.”

The leader class’ soul-numbing luxuriating, and its indifference to the masses of its people living in poverty, render the nation vulnerable to conquerors who will surely take advantage of its weakness. Corruption sows the seeds of its own destruction.

*****

Isaiah 30:1-5
Oh, disloyal sons!‐- declares the LORD‐- making plans against My wishes, weaving schemes against My will, thereby piling guilt on guilt‐- who set out to go down to Egypt without asking Me, to seek refuge with Pharaoh, to seek shelter under the protection of Egypt. The refuge with Pharaoh shall result in your shame; the shelter under Egypt’s protection, in your chagrin. Though his officers are present in Zoan, and his messengers reach as far as Hanes, they all shall come to shame because of a people that does not avail them, that is of no help or avail, but [brings] only chagrin and disgrace. [Egypt ultimately stands back and watches the conquest of the Jewish homeland and the exile of its inhabitants.]
Fearing the triumphant newly arisen Assyrian empire, Israel seeks to ally itself with Asyria’s strongest foe, Egypt, for protection. Isaiah warns the Israelites against putting their trust in Egypt and urges them to put their trust in God alone. He prophesies the fall of Assyria, hoping thereby to snap the people out of their delusion:

Isaiah 14:24-27
“The LORD of Hosts has sworn this oath: “As I have designed, so shall it happen; what I have planned, that shall come to pass: to break Assyria in My land, to crush him on My mountain.” And his yoke shall drop off them, and his burden shall drop from their backs. That is the plan that is planned for all the earth; that is why an arm is poised over all the nations. For the LORD of Hosts has planned; who then can foil it? It is His arm that is poised, and who can stay it?”

Why has God permitted Assyria to grow so large and powerful, seeing that God now in-°©‐ tends to bring about its downfall? Isaiah answers:

Isaiah 10:5-12
“Ha! Assyria, rod of My wrath, in whose hand, as a staff, is My fury! I send him against an ungodly nation, I charge him against a people that provokes Me, to take its spoil and to seize its booty and to make it a thing trampled like the mire of the streets. But he has evil plans, his mind harbors evil designs; for he means to destroy, to wipe out nations, not a few. For he thinks, “After all, I have [vassal] kings as my captains! Was Calno any different from Carchemish? Or Hamath from Arpad? Or Samaria from Damascus? Since I was able to seize the insignificant kingdoms, whose images exceeded Jerusalem’s and Samaria’s, shall I not do to Jerusalem and her images what I did to Samaria and her idols?” But when my Lord has carried out all his purpose on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, He will punish the majestic pride and overbearing arrogance of the king of Assyria.”

Assyria was the instrument of God’s wrath, punishing Israel for its sinfulness. Assyria, however, exceeded its commission. Grouping Israel’s God among all the local gods he has conquered, Assyria’s king wished to show that he now ruled the world. By destroy-°©‐ ing the Assyrian empire, Israel’s God was going to show that He alone was Sovereign, not only of Israel but of the whole world.

*****
Isaiah 11:1-11
“A shoot shall grow out of the stump of Jesse, a twig shall sprout from his stock. The spirit of the LORD shall alight upon him: a spirit of wisdom and insight, a spirit of counsel and valor, a spirit of devotion and reverence for the LORD. He shall sense the truth by his reverence for the LORD: he shall not judge by what his eyes behold, nor decide by what his ears perceive. Thus he shall judge the poor with equity and decide with justice for the lowly of the land. He shall strike down a land with the rod of his mouth and slay the wicked with the breath of his lips. Justice shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his waist. The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard lie down with the kid; the calf, the beast of prey, and the fatling together, with a little boy to herd them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion, like the ox, shall eat straw. A babe shall play over a viper’s hole, and an infant pass his hand over an adder’s den. In all of My sacred mount nothing evil or vile shall be done; for the land shall be filled with knowledge of the LORD as water covers the sea.”

Isaiah’s prophecy about Israel’s defeat at the hand of Assyria asserts that, from Israel’s ruins, there will arise a divinely inspired Davidic king who will rule a reunited kingdom of Israel and Judah in peace, justice and unending loyalty to God. A new world will be ushered in. (Because this vision has not been realized, the Sages taken it to refer to the coming of the Messiah.)

*****
Jeremiah 22:13-19
“Ha! he who builds his house with unfairness and his upper chambers with injustice, who makes his fellow man work without pay and does not give him his wages, who thinks: I will build me a vast palace with spacious upper chambers, provided with windows, paneled in cedar, painted with vermilion! Do you think you are more a king because you compete in cedar? Your father ate and drank and dispensed justice and equity
‐- then all went well with him. He upheld the rights of the poor and needy
‐- then all was well. That is what truly heeding Me means
‐- declares the LORD. But your eyes and your mind are only on ill-gotten gains, on shedding the blood of the innocent, on committing fraud and violence. Assuredly, thus said the LORD concerning Jehoiakim son of Josiah, king of Judah: They shall not mourn for him, “Ah, brother! Ah, sister!” They shall not mourn for him, “Ah, lord! Ah, his majesty!” He shall have the burial of an ass, dragged out and left lying outside the gates of Jerusalem.”

*****
Jeremiah predicts the downfall of Judah at the hand of the Babylonians, brought on by corruption that originates with the king and pervades all of Judah. Pagan worship com-°©‐ pounds the crime: Jeremiah learns that the women of Judah routinely bake cakes and burn incense to the Canaanite goddess Astarte, known as the Queen of Heaven. To the prophet’s upbraiding, the people protest that when they worshipped the Queen of Heav-°©‐ en they prospered, and when they turned from that worship, troubles came upon them. Jeremiah replies to the people:

Jeremiah 44:21-23
“Indeed, the offerings you presented in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem‐- you, your fathers, your kings, your officials, and the people of the land‐- were remembered by the LORD and brought to mind! When the LORD could no longer bear your evil practices and the abominations you committed, your land became a desolate ruin and a curse, without inhabitant, as is still the case. Because you burned incense [to pagan gods] and sinned against the LORD and did not obey the LORD, and because you did not follow His Teaching, His laws, and His exhortations, therefore this disaster has befallen you, as is still the case.”

Worse than the worship of Astarte, and worse even than idolatry in the very Temple of God, was the ritual burning of children:

Jeremiah 7:30-34
“For the people of Judah have done what displeases Me-°©‐-°©‐ declares the LORD. They have set up their abominations in the House which is called by My name, and they have defiled it. And they have built the shrines of Topheth in the Valley of Ben-hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in Lire‐- which I never commanded, which never came to My mind.
Assuredly, a time is coming‐- declares the LORD– when men shall no longer speak of Topheth or the Valley of Ben-hinnom, but of the Valley of Slaughter; and they shall bury in Topheth until no room is left. The carcasses of this people shall be food for the birds of the sky and the beasts of the earth, with none to frighten them off. And I will silence in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem the sound of mirth and gladness, the voice of bridegroom and bride. For the whole land shall fall to ruin.”

********************
A theme that runs throughout the teachings of the prophets is that God’s people must practice honesty, justice, compassion, and uncompromising fealty to God. Because Israel and Judah were steeped in political corruption, perversion of justice, and cruelty to the poor, combined with grisly pagan worship, the first Jewish commonwealth was destroyed and its population exiled. The theme draws no distinction between ethical and ritual or cultic sins– all are condemned, all are to blame for the people’ misfortunes.

   

2015-2016 Session 1

A Person, Not a Microphone

 

The Bible (1 Samuel 9:3-10) describes how a farmer named Saul was led – by what first appeared to be happenstance but turned out to be the hand of God – to the prophet Samuel, who anointed him as Israel’s first king:

Once the asses of Saul’s father Kish went astray, and Kish said to his son Saul, “Take along one of the servants and go out and look for the asses.” He passed into the hill country of Ephraim. He crossed the district of Shalishah, but they did not find them. They passed through the district of Shaalim, but they were not there. They traversed the [entire] territory of Benjamin, and still they did not find them. When they reached the district of Zuph, Saul said to the servant who was with him, “Let us turn back, or my father will stop worrying about the asses and begin to worry about us.” But he replied, “There is a man of God in that town, and the man is highly esteemed; everything that he says comes true. Let us go there; perhaps he will tell us about the errand on which we set out.” “But if we go,” Saul said to his servant, “what can we bring the man? For the food in our bags is all gone, and there is nothing we can bring to the man of God as a present. What have we got?” The servant answered Saul again, “I happen to have a quarter-shekel of silver. I can give that to the man of God and he will tell us about our errand.” – Formerly in Israel, when a man went to inquire of God, he would say, “Come, let us go to the seer [roeh],” for the prophet [navi] of today was formerly called a seer [roeh] – Saul said to his servant, “A good idea; let us go.” And they went to the town where the man of God lived.

What is a roeh [seer] and what is a navi [prophet]? A roeh is someone whose primary function is to see distant, past, and even future events. A navi, on the other hand, is commanded by God to deliver a message to the people, rebuking them and urging them to change their ways. The root n.b.a [nun-bet-aleph] means, variously, to inform, to announce, or to speak. The navi is not a foreteller, but a forth-teller – one who, in our idiom, ”tells it like it is.” When God gives the navi a look at the future, He is in effect telling him that what he sees is the future as it now looks: dark and calamitous. Yet at the same time, God is assuring the people that this is but one of two futures, the other being reconciliation with God, and happiness and prosperity in their own land. It is up to the people to repent, to turn from their ways, and to reconstitute their national life so that it reflects the laws and teachings of God. Only then will the dark future be replaced with one of light and joy. The navi’s chief duty is not merely to see or even to describe his visions, but to speak forth their meaning.

In Saul’s time, the two roles – navi and roeh – were conflated, with people consulting a man of God in his role of roeh but fearing him in his role of navi. In the classical age of prophets, beginning with Samuel and ending with Zechariah, Haggai and Malachi, who ushered in the period of the second Temple, the prophets roundly condemned the sins of human exploitation, political corruption, paganism and blasphemy and were often persecuted by powerful interests that did not want the people to hear God’s disturbing word.

The navi was not an innovator but a reformer. When a prophet denounced the offering of sacrifices in the Temple, he was referring to their use as an attempt to bribe God into looking the other way in matters of ethics. Speaking on behalf of God, Isaiah (1:13) says, “Sacred assemblies with iniquity, I cannot abide.” In our time, “sacred assemblies with iniquity” might refer, for example, to a Jewish slumlord who puts on t’fillin before starting his day of cheating and exploiting his tenants. The t’fillin remain holy and the wearing of them remains a mitzvah, but using them as a way of bribing God to look the other way in matters of ethics and social justice makes that person’s wearing of t’fillin repugnant to God.

It’s the iniquity, not the wearing of t’fillin, that God “cannot abide.”

Similarly, when the people ask God, “Why, when we fasted, did You not see? [Why,] when we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?” the prophet Isaiah (58:3-19), voicing God’s reply, says:

Because on your fast day you see to your business and oppress all your laborers! Because you fast in strife and contention, and you strike with a wicked fist! Your fasting today is not such as to make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast I desire, a day for people to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, a day that the LORD deems favorable? No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke; to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin. Then shall your light burst through like the dawn and your healing spring up quickly; your Vindicator shall march before you, the Presence of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then, when you call, the LORD will answer; when you cry out, He will say, “Here I am.”

It’s the iniquity, not the fasting, that God “cannot abide.”

Samuel enunciated this message to Saul after Saul had taken up his kingship and led the Israelite army against the Amalekites, a nation dedicated to the annihilation of Israel and all that it stands for. Saul was commanded to annihilate them and their possessions, leaving no trace of Amalek’s ever having been a people. However, fearing that the troops would defect if they could not have a share of the spoil, Saul spared many of the Amalekite’ sheep. When confronted by Samuel, he pleaded, “But I did obey the LORD! I performed the mission on which the LORD sent me: I captured King Agag of Amalek, and I proscribed Amalek, and the troops took from the spoil some sheep and oxen – the best of what had been proscribed – to sacrifice to the LORD your God at Gilgal” (1 Samuel 15:20-21).

Samuel replied, “Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obedience to the LORD’s command? Surely, obedience is better than sacrifice,
compliance than the fat of rams. For [in the eyes of God] rebellion is like the sin of divination, defiance like the iniquity of t’raphim [household gods]. Because you rejected the LORD’s command, He has rejected you as king” (1 Samuel 15:22-23).

Samuel’s words to Saul epitomize the message of later prophets to a sinful nation: your attempt to use ritual commandments as a substitute for ethical commandments will backfire, to your detriment.

Countering the notion that the prophet is God’s robotic instrument, Abraham Joshua Heschel (The Prophets, xxii) points out that

“[t]he prophet is a person, not a microphone. He is endowed with a mission, with the power of a word not his own that accounts for his greatness – but also with temperament, concern, character, and individuality. As there was no resisting the impact of divine inspiration, so at times there was no resisting the vortex of his own temperament.”

When the prophet spoke forth his message, “the word of God reverberated in the voice of man.”