Friday, July 25, 2008

Prophecies of Destruction and Redemption

On the arid plateau of Masada, the dry, hot wind has parched all that was left after the deaths of the Jewish rebels. Among the archeological finds in the area were a number of desiccated seeds from the now extinct Jerusalem Palm tree. In the past few years, scientists in Israel have induced these seeds to sprout forth new life -- life that has been two thousand years frozen in time, waiting for the return of the land's rightful inhabitants. Yechezkel prophesies, "ואתם הרי ישראל ענפכם תתנו ופריכם תשאו לעמי ישראל כי קרבו לבא". Rashi explains, "כשתתן א"י פריה בעין יפה אז יקרב הקץ ואין לך קץ מגולה יותר": "When the land of Israel gives forth its fruits freely, the redemption is near, and there is no clearer sign of the redemption than this..." What a miraculous realization of this Rashi! This inspired part of the following ideas.

In one of his sichot to his students, Rabbi Lichtenstein chooses to compare the task and prophetic endowment of Moshe to that of Yirmiyahu, whose calling by God is the substance of our haftarah. In reading his words, I developed what I believe to be an interesting take on the distinction between Moshe and Yirmiyahu, which I hope to expand upon as the years progress.

Let us examine the inception experiences of both Moshe and Yirmiyahu. The first difference that immediately presents itself is age. Yirmiyahu is a young man, while Moshe was chosen when he was already a mature man, at eighty years old. Also, it is important to note the manner in which each candidate responded to God's invocation. Moshe protests against his appointment as messenger of God for days, and when he finally culminates with his speech impediment as an excuse, God loses patience, as it were. On the other hand, Yirmiyahu seems quite willing, and his only hesitation is that he is too young to be a leader. As soon as Hashem assures Yirmiyahu that He will be with him, the young prophet moves forward with faith and complacency. Why is it that Moshe, the more mature one, searches for more excuses than Yirmiyahu?

Upon closer reflection, we notice that the two prophets are actually being called to quite different tasks. God summons Moshe to the unimaginable task of raising a nation of slaves out of the sweltering heat of their oppression. He then would have to bring this stiff-necked people through a desert, fighting them each step of the way. He would feel so strongly the futility of his task at times, that he would ask to be relieved of his position. And he would bring the nation from the heights of Sinai to the depths of the golden calf, finally leaving them, his dearest desire unfulfilled, and leave his student to bring them into the Promised Land. God tells Moshe, "I will be with your mouth" (Ex. 4:15). "With" implies a dialogue, a co-participation. Almost in a partnership with Hashem, Moshe is to be the prophetic leader of the Jews.

On the other hand, Yirmiyahu is to walk the streets and alleys of Jerusalem, prophesying its destruction. He was not meant to be a leader. Indeed, more often than not, reviled by his brothers, he finds himself the outsider, and the very enemies of Israel release him from his fraternally induced incarceration on the eve of the burning of the city. Yirmiyahu is most definitely not a leader. Whereas God is "with" Moshe's mouth, and there is an element of teamwork, God "places his words" in Yirmiyahu's mouth (compare to the prophetic experience of Bilam). There is monologue here, no dialogue. He is a prophet only, a mouthpiece for the message of God.

Because of Moshe's role as leader and prophet, he is a completely public figure. He separates from his wife, and is praised by Rashi (Ex. 19:14) for his neglect of his own affairs, finding time only for the matters of the nation. For Moshe, no national suffering can be dealt with as a tragedy with private mourning. When God threatens the nation with destruction for the sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe draws his dialogue with God into sharp relief, carrying on a spirited, almost disrespectful argument with God, in which he successfully arbitrates the salvation of Israel. All of the nation's troubles are his, and he responds to them as an intercessor, not as a private citizen.

In contrast, we do not find Yirmiyahu attempting to change the decree against Jerusalem. And when it is finally enflamed, he joins the chained ranks of Jewish prisoners. He seeks no audience with God, he has no special connection to utilize and mitigate the suffering. Instead of the monologue of God which he faithfully transmitted, now all that Yirmiyah can produce is a dirge-like monologue of his own, the book of Eicha. In it, and as an equal to them, Yirmiyah is found lamenting the suffering of his brothers, crying into the howling wind of the dark abyss, receiveing no particular response from God. Relieved of his mission as mouthpiece, he reverts to the status of individual member of Israel, pained as they are by hester panim, that iron curtain that has descended between God and His people.

And through these distinctions emerges the defining characteristic of the two men's roles: exile and redemption. Moshe represents a vivid image of the redemption: the rise of Israel's honor and respect, and with this, the rise of that intimate dialogue between God and His chosen ones. Moshe leads the Jews through his special relationship, his interactive prophetic nature. On the reverse side, Yirmiyahu is the prophet who ushers in the exile. He is no leader, for the Jews will have no centralized leader in their dispersion. He is rather a prophet of doom, and he signifies the beginning of the end of prophecy. Eventually, as the Rambam implies, God's word to Man became so mundane in the eyes of humanity, that the phenomenon of prophecy ceased altogether.

This is so because of the general principle that the leader of the nation reflects the spiritual position of Israel at that time (Arachin 17a). When the Jews follow the law and are on a spiritual and national high, they are in the redemptive mode. When this is not the case, the prophecy takes on the form of Yirmiyahu's, and eventually ends.

This interaction with God changing from dialogue to monologue can perhaps be encapsulated as the seed of the Jerusalem Palms. When the dialogue relationship begins to lose its potency, Hashem allows it to desiccate, as it were, into the monologue. Indeed, as the Jewish people spread out over the world in their exile, prayer took the place of sacrifice, and the monologue of the Jewish nation represents the freezing of our special intimate national relationship with God, preserved by Him until the time that redemption again becomes the paradigm, when humankind finds a new hunger, "no hunger for bread or thirst for water, rather for the word of God!"

When Man finds himself parched for a taste of this life-giving intimacy, this dialogue with God, then the shift from exile to redemption (begins) is made. However, this process is also a long and arduous one, and according to the Gaon from Vilna, must begin as our present history teaches us, with a physical re-awakening and movement towards Israel, and then the spiritual one.

Rabbi Hirsch teaches that the purpose of our three weeks of mourning is not to simply to grieve over the past. We are particularly meant to reflect on where we are in our present situation, and compare that to the ideals of the Torah. And so, as his first message to the Jews, and the last verses of our Haftarah, Yirmiyahu begins his book with a prophecy of the youthful vigor of Israel. This is not only a look back at the Mosaic prophetic paradigm, but a look far into the future, past all the suffering that will fill the sad pages of the book of Jeremiah, into the redemption of the distant future, whose stages we today are experiencing.

We look during these three weeks not only at our defection from our mission that led to Jerusalem's destruction, but also at the "youthful love" of our nation, following God into the wilderness, and we remind ourselves of our purpose in this world: to bring ourselves back to that reality, and to be willing to sacrifice for it!

With this, our Tish'a B'av takes on meaning not only as a period of mourning, but one of renewing our strength, re-aligning ourselves to our task, and rededicating ourselves to the redemption, which we pray and act for every day.

May we merit it quickly!