Jeremiah and Coping
( after 17th Tammuz)
It is a very frightening world—rockets from Gaza into Israel, Israeli soldiers now inside Gaza, a passenger airline downed on the Ukraine-Russian border, an Islamic Caliphate in Syria and Iraq. No end of tsorres, troubles.
This last Tuesday was the 17th of Tammuz, when we recall the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, and in two weeks, it will be the 9th of Av, when we recall the fall of the Temple, twice.
Our tradition doesn’t let us forget that there can be immense disasters that have always befallen us.
How can we cope with it?
There is an old story, of a man who comes to his Rebbe:
"Rabbi, you must help me? I have a thousand problems!"
--A thousand problems! What are they?--
---I tell you, the holidays are coming. I need food for my family, clothes for my wife, pants for my boys, dresses for my girls. It's impossible!
---Wait, said the Rabbi--don't despair. Let's make a list of everything, and how much it will cost. -- Food-$500-Dress--$80--pants-$50, etc. , etc. --now, let's add it up It comes to $1000. It tell you, thank God, you don’t know how lucky you are. You came in and said you had a thousand problems-We've just solved 999 of them. You only have one problem left to solve-- where to get $1000. You have my blessing.
Often, our woes can as easily be joked aside. Many times, what looms as catastrophes in our eyes, in retrospect are minor incidents, easily overcome.
Many of our woes descend on us in the form of the old line,” What's the difference between a recession and a depression--The recession is the other guys troubles. The depression? Those are my troubles!
The recessions can be handled with some agility, the depressions, though, can tear us apart. What happens when one depression follows another, when disaster strikes in succession, or in such overwhelming force, as to devastate entire communities? How then can we cope?
What happens when an economy enters a major recession or depression as happened only a few years ago, almost bring down the world economy? What happens in the wake of an invasion or a civil war take-over, when all hopes of liberty and normalcy are dashed to the ground? What happens when events strike which are out of human control-an earthquake in California, a hurricane in Florida, a Tsunami in Japan?
What then is our reaction?
As Jews, we may well have cornered the market on disasters. Our history
overflows with tragedy, and if the Noble Prize for literature were given to nations,
we would surely win it for the quality of our tragedies.
There are two historic responses that we have formed. One the on hand, we
are familiar with that response : “Mipnei Chataenu "-Because of our sins we were
punished. We find it repeatedly in Biblical, Talmudic, and Medieval Jewish literature.
However, there is another response, a uniquely Jewish posture, a stance
against misery on a massive scale, a refusal to accept disaster passively, an insistence on calling heaven to task for a rotten state of affairs.
The originator of this posture was the Prophet, Jeremiah, from whom we have today’s Haftarah.
Jeremiah lived and eye witnessed the first what we could call” Holocaust” of our history,
the destruction of the first Temple, and the elimination of Judea as a sovereign state. He was a double sufferer, for not only did he live through it, but, like Cassandra of the Greek myth, he knew it was coming for years in advance and no one would heed his warnings.
We have an amazing record, not only of his message, but of his feelings and gut level response as well.
He is a lonely man.
He knows that disaster will come, so he remains a bachelor-why marry and have children, only to lose them? Why fall in love only to suffer the pain of loss?
He refrains from social contact. Why have friends, only to lose them to the
Because of his message, he is a roundly hated man-hated by the king, the
priests . He is the only prophet to have the dubious distinction of being thrown in jail.
Surely his mother never boasted. "My son, the prophet" and he himself
wanted only one thing-to stop being a prophet. But it is out of his hands.
God informs him, "Before I formed you in the belly, I knew you." (1:5)
This is hardly a great privilege, and Jeremiah retorts, "Woe is me, my mother, that you ever bore me-- a man of conflict and strife with all the land ! (15:10).
Or “ Cursed be the day I was born, let not he day be blessed when my mother bore me.
Why did I ever issue from the womb, to see misery and woe, to spend all my days in shame. "(20:14-18)
Jeremiah, like Cassandra, is doomed to report the truth , and be hated for
it. Yet, he cannot keep quiet.
"There is a fire in my heart, a burning fire, shut up in my bones, and I weary
myself to hold it in. But I can't!" ( 20:9)
When there is so much tearing inside a person’s heart, it inevitably produces anger.
Jeremiah’s anger, understandably , is directed at those who persecute him and
who are responsible for the nations downfall.
But there is, as well, a Promethean streak in Jeremiah, a Promethean streak
that has become a part of the Jewish reaction to disaster, a trait that has remained
a Jewish response, side by side with the response of "mipnei hataneu’, because of our sins.
Jeremiah accuses. "0 Lard, you have enticed me, and I was enticed. You overpowered me "You would be right, O Lord, if I contended with you. But I will present charges against you, nevertheless. ! Why do the ways of the wicked prosper, why are the treacherous ones at ease. "(12:1)
Jeremiah is hurling accusations against God! God is deceitful. God is unjust. "Why is my pain perpetual, and my wound incurable? Will you indeed be like a river bed whose waters are deceitful, whose waters run dry?"(15:18).
Had this been a Greek tragedy, at this very point, the earth would have opened up, Jeremiah would have been swallowed up, and the chorus would chime in, "Thus shall be done to those who question the wisdom of the gods.” Prometheus gets his liver yanked out anew every day for caring for humanity.
But this is not a Greek tragedy, this is a Biblical text. Fate is not inexorable, destiny is not an abstraction, and God is expected to be just.
God’s response to Jeremiah is-"Keep a stiff upper lip, hang in there. "
"I shall save you from the hands of the wicked and rescue you from the clutches of the violent". (15:19)
It forms a scenario for future Jewish disasters-God is a god of justice; therefore he is accountable for his actions. We don't accept disaster passively, as a consequence. After the destruction of the Second Temple, a Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani could envision a scene such as this in heaven.
Abraham comes to God in anger. Why did you break your covenant with me!"
-Well, they did, after all, break the law, and here is the law in evidence.
Abraham turned to the law, "Shame on you. How could you testify against my children. They were the only ones, of all the people on earth, who accepted you.'' The law withdrew its testimony.
So God brought in the letters of the alphabet to testify, and Abraham embarrassed each and every one. Soon, God was left without any evidence against the children of Israel.
Abraham now went out the offensive. "Didn’t I offer my Isaac as a sacrifice , only to see my children destroyed.”
Isaac then chimed in, "Didn’t I offer my life, only for my children to be destroyed ? "
Then Jacob, David, Moses, and Jeremiah and Rachel all joined in. Even the sun and the angels began to complain.
Finally. God himself joined in the lamentation, and swore to return his
people to Zion.(Peticha, Eicha Rabbati).
Such a legend grows out of a peculiar belief, a peculiarly Jewish outlook,
a belief in a God of justice, but not an abstraction, rather, a God whom human beings have the right to bring to task. This is implicit in Jeremiah 's complaint and explicit in Jewish lore.
It repeats itself in Hasidic literature.
It is told of the Baal Shem Tov, that in his synagogue, on Yom. Kippur,
there was one modest and humble tailor, who argued vocally, in the midst
of the service, just prior to the chanting of the confession of sins.
"I have, sinned, I have betrayed! Very well, God, I admit. I may have overcharged
here, I may have skimped on cloth there, I may even have lied about how
the clothes fit well.
"But look at you! Look what you did! You make orphans, widows, plagues,
earthquakes-all that is your doing. So, I'll tell you, we'll make a deal.
You forgive me my sins, and I'll forgive you yours. "
The Baal Shem Tov turned to him, 'You fool! Why did you stop You had God by the throat. Why, a little more squeezing, and he' ld have been forced to send the Messiah. !"
This Jewish perspective on God and God’s justice is incomprehensible in Islam, which considers God as the sole and total force of all events and whose ideal is “Islam”, complete submission to the will of God. Certainly it is incomprehensible in the Christian theology of a Paul or a Martin Luther or a Calvin, for whom human actions cannot possible bring about redemption as that would be forcing God to respond to human action.
What has been the characteristic , not only of our great prophets and sages, but of the “poshte yid”, the simple Jew on the street, has been to hold on to faith, despite the doubt, despite the anger.
The Jewish response, as we have seen, in this century in particular, has been to reaffirm our Jewishness, to reaffirm our Judaism. We have seen a nation created out of the devastated remnants of Europe , Africa, and Asia. We saw Jews who had been forced to hide their identity in the Soviet Union and other eastern European countries persevere and survive the Iron Curtain, to reemerge as Jews here and in Israel. What is true on a scale of the people as a whole can then be true on an individual scale; we absorb the slings and arrows of our daily illnesses or sufferings, but, rather than resign ourselves to them, we argue, we protest, we move ourselves. Nevertheless, we have “emunah”, a faith, to drive us beyond our woes, and build our lives in a better and nobler form.
We can have a Jeremiah utter a Jeremiad, a Lamentation, an Eichah, and then we can have a Jeremiah remind us: Is not Ephraim my dear son, the child in whom I delight? Though I often speak against him, I still remember him. Therefore my heart yearns for him; I have great compassion for him," declares the LORD.
That is the hope that keeps us going.