Saturday, February 6, 2016

Jeremiah encounters Israel 2016: On the haftarah of Mishpatim

‎“Alas! Lonely Sits the City” or Why Did this Happen to Us?‎ A special report from Jerusalem When the crisis began with the Babylonian invasion of Judea, and again at the start of ‎the siege on Jerusalem, the public gathered in the courtyard of the Temple, for a ‎prayer rally to beseech God to save the city. With great shouts, we shook the heavens: ‎‎“The Temple of the LORD, the Temple of the LORD, the Temple of the LORD!” (Jeremiah ‎‎7:4) We were confident that Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel would save us from their ‎hands.  ‎ The full story:‎ From well-informed sources, we have learned ‎that Jeremiah dispatched a letter to the king:‎ To my lord, King Zedekiah of Judah:‎ The word of the Lord saying: Do not place ‎your trust in the Temple, rather the LORD that ‎requires doing righteousness and justice.‎ I would like to remind you that God’s laws ‎begin with “When you acquire a Hebrew ‎slave, he shall serve six years; in the seventh ‎year he shall go free” (Exodus 21:2). God’s ‎law demands a mechanism for social justice, ‎because we are to be God’s servants. For ‎many years, the covenant has been violated, ‎and slaves have not be released. ‎ My lord the king! If you wish to save your ‎people and your kingdom, you must repair ‎this breach. ‎ Signed with a shaking hand: ‎ Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, a priest from Anatot.‎ The king opened the letter, read it and called a ‎meeting of the cabinet.‎ The minister of justice began: “It does say that in ‎Exodus, but the laws in Leviticus and ‎Deuteronomy state it differently” and began to ‎weave complex arguments…‎ Unsurprisingly, the minister of welfare ‎supported the proposal but the ministers of ‎finance and the economy were firmly opposed: ‎‎“Without cheap, even oppressive labor, how can ‎the economy grow and how will we fill the ‎king’s coffers?”‎ The minister of defense considered the options ‎and had a brilliant idea: “It will be easy to draft ‎the newly released slaves, because they will not ‎have the resources or connections to gain an ‎exemption.” And so it was decided. ‎ A few days later, the king summoned the ‎officers of Judah and Jerusalem to an ‎impressive ceremony at which they promised to ‎declare liberty and release their slaves. Not only ‎did they promise, they kept their word.‎ Briefly it seemed that the move was successful. ‎The Babylonian army redirected its attention to ‎the force coming up from Egypt to Judea’s aid, ‎easing the siege.‎ But then wealthy magnates met in secret and ‎found a way – using means we cannot reveal – ‎to return their slaves to servitude.‎ ‎“Thus said the Lord: ‘You did not obey Me and ‎proclaim a release, each to his kinsman… I will ‎make you a horror’” (Jer. 34:17).   They responded: “When we promised to release ‎them, we didn’t say for how long.”‎ The covenant was again violated, and social ‎solidarity crumbled.‎ On 9 Tammuz, the city walls were breached; on ‎the 17th, the Temple service ended. Two days ‎ago “the LORD vented all His fury, poured out ‎His blazing wrath, kindling a fire in His ‎Temple.” (Lam. 4:11) ‎ The king and ministers are being exiled with the ‎exile carried off by Nebuchadnezzar, king of ‎Babylon (cf. Esther 2:6). ‎ ‎“For these things do I weep, we weep bitterly in ‎the night for there is no comforter” (based on ‎Lamentations). ‎

The above special report covers a slightly longer period than Jeremiah 34, which forms the main ‎part of this week’s haftarah.  But the haftarah ends differently, with two verses of comfort from ‎the previous chapter: ‎
Thus said the Lord: As surely as I have established My covenant with day and night–the ‎laws of heaven and earth–so I will never reject the offspring of Jacob and My servant David; ‎I will never fail to take from his offspring rulers for the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and ‎Jacob. Indeed, I will restore their fortunes and take them back in love (Jer. 33: 25-26).‎
Indeed, the covenant is eternal; 70 years later, Israelites returned to Zion. Slowly they rebuilt the ‎land, Jerusalem and the Temple. The Second Temple period lasted for nearly 500 years, followed ‎a 2000-year exile.‎

Slightly more than a century ago, the second return to Zion began in a very, very different world. ‎The State was established, and many consider it the beginning of our redemption, equal in value ‎to the third Temple. ‎

Despite this, despite the building and independence, the feelings of threat and closure have ‎returned in a form appropriate for the sixth millennia. Public discourse is strident and shrill, ‎wealth makes right, and the every-expanding socio-economic gaps are ignored. Despite the ‎tremendous difference between our socio-economic reality and that of Bible, the values ‎reflected in the mechanism for releasing slaves remain in force: striving for an economy that does ‎not prioritize the interests of tycoons and does perpetuate gaps, but rather considers the good ‎of the majority and provides structural opportunities to start again.   ‎

The confidence that the Third Temple will not be destroyed or that the rightness of our cause will ‎protect us from all threats is not substantively different from the empty belief of Jeremiah’s ‎contemporaries. Therefore, I will end with his words to those who trusted in the Temple: ‎
If you really mend your ways and your actions; if you execute justice between one person ‎and another; if you do not oppress the stranger, the orphan, and the widow; if you do not ‎shed the blood of the innocent in this place; if you do not follow other gods, to your own ‎hurt–only then will I let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your ancestors for ‎all time (Jeremiah 7:5-7).

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