A lesson from Jeremiah in Masei

Rabbi Justin Kerber

By Rabbi Justin Kerber

Kibbutz Ramat Yochanan, a large, prosperous village near Haifa, Israel, was my home for the fall and winter of 1993.  

While it wasn’t exactly a happening nightspot, it did boast a weekly evening gathering where the kibbutz’s volunteers and young adults would socialize in an underground air-raid shelter that had been given over to this purpose. It wasn’t long before I learned the word for “shelter” —miklat — but I never comprehended why our kibbutz disco was called Ir Miklat. 

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Many years later I realized the name was a sly reference to the City of Refuge (ir miklat), commanded in this week’s Torah portion, Masei (Numbers 33:1-36:13).

An accidental killer might flee to one of these Cities of Refuge to avoid vengeance by the victim’s relatives. Both the Land of Israel and the Israelite society growing upon it could thus avoid being defiled by blood spilled in anger (Num. 35:9-15). The Prophet Jeremiah, whose blistering admonition we read in this week’s haftarah (Jeremiah 2:4-28, 3:4) would have known these laws.  Yet this second haftarah of three haftarot of admonition is not directly connected with the Torah portion…or is it?

Jeremiah warns the people of Israel: not only was it their own idolatry that is to blame for their impending destruction by foreign invaders, but that they will have no refuge where they can flee. He asks, rhetorically, mournfully, “Did you not bring this on yourselves by forsaking the Eternal your God, while God led you on the way?  Now then: What good will it do you to go to Egypt and drink the waters of the Nile? And what good will it do you to go to Assyria to drink the waters of the Euphrates?” (Jer. 2:17-18) Jeremiah’s recalling the wandering in Sinai and his reference to the two Great Powers of his day is a warning to trust only God, not any alliance with Egypt or Assyria.

Jeremiah himself became a refugee at the end of his life, fleeing (or being taken against his will) to Egypt with some of the survivors of the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. He continued to issue dire prophecies (see Jer. 44).  

Jeremiah saw God in the enemy, and not in the establishment. King Zedekiah requested proclamations of hope, or intercession with the Lord to save Jerusalem, but he refused, despite severe punishments and reprisals.  At once an impassioned critic and a devout lover of Israel, he displayed unflinching commitment to both of these poles of his character.

Which leaders today tell us what we don’t wish to hear?  What warnings or impending dooms are we fleeing, seeking blandishments rather than facing hard truths? 

In this season of admonition and consolation before the High Holy Days, may we, as individuals, community, and people, be a little more like Jeremiah — or at least like the audience he must occasionally have wished he had.