“The Pain of Giving Reproof”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

On Sunday, July 8th, Jews the world over observed the fast of Shivah Asar B’Tamuz, the Seventeenth day of Tamuz. The fast marks the day in the year 586 B.C.E. when the Babylonian army made its first breach in the walls of Jerusalem during the siege that ultimately led to the destruction of the Temple, on Tisha ba’av, the Ninth of Av. The period between Shivah Asar B’Tamuz and Tisha ba’av is known as the “Three Weeks.” During these three weeks we limit our rejoicing and begin to get into the mourning mode. The communal mourning becomes amplified during the nine days that precede Tisha ba’av, and becomes most intense on the fast of Tisha ba’av, which this year will be observed on Saturday night, July 28th through Sunday night, July 29th.

In order to create the appropriate atmosphere in anticipation of the Temples’ destruction, the sages ordained that the haftorot, the prophetic messages read on the Shabbatot between the Seventeenth of Tamuz and the Ninth of Av, should be prophecies that predict the destruction of the first Temple. Consequently, the opening chapters of Jeremiah and Isaiah are read. These three haftorot are known as Shalosh Dipuranuta, the three prophecies of calamity. Each prophecy predicts the great destruction that will take place and the punishments that would be visited upon Israel due to their sinfulness.

The haftorah for parashat Pinchas consists of the entire first chapter of Jeremiah and continues through the first three verses of chapter 2. The Book of Jeremiah opens with a description of G-d’s selection of Jeremiah to be a prophet. Jeremiah is reluctant to prophesy, claiming that since he is but a lad he is unqualified. G-d touches his mouth and tells Jeremiah to have no fear; after all, G-d will put His words into the prophet’s mouth.

The first prophecy of Jeremiah concerns an almond-wood staff that G-d shows him. The second prophecy concerns a boiling cauldron that is bubbling over from its northern side. G-d explains that the boiling cauldron represents the evil that will burst forth from the north, symbolizing that the Babylonians will emerge from the north and bring great destruction in their wake.

The prophecy of the burning cauldron is quite straightforward. However, the opening prophecy of the almond-wood staff is unusually perplexing. In Jeremiah 1:11, G-d says to the prophet, “Mah ah’tah ro’eh, Yirmiyahu?” What do you see, Jeremiah? “V’oh’mar, mah’kayl sha’kaid ah’nee roh’eh,” and I said, I see a staff made of almond-wood. Verse 12: “Va’yomer Hashem ay’lay,” G-d said to me, says the prophet, “Hay’tav’tah lir’ot,” you have seen very well, “Kee sho’ked anee al d’va’ree la’ah’soh’toh,” for I will hasten to fulfill My word!

Clearly the representational message of the almond-wood staff is the message of “speed.” Since the almond is the first fruit to ripen in Israel, it symbolizes speed and alacrity–that G-d will hasten to bring the ominous fulfillment of His prophecy of destruction upon the Jewish people. But the question remains, why does G-d say, “Hay’tav’tah lir’ot,” Jeremiah, you have seen very well? After all, what was so special about Jeremiah being able to identify an almond-wood staff?

May I suggest a possible explanation. A “staff” is a finished piece of wood. Once the wood is finished, sanded and planed, it is very difficult to distinguish between almond, pine or other varieties of wood. G-d therefore compliments Jeremiah, saying, “Hay’tav’tah lir’ot,” You have seen very well. By being able to distinguish that the staff is specifically almond, you have enabled me to clarify my message of speed. This was no easy task. You, Jeremiah, are quite talented.

Good and well, but this raises another question: why didn’t G-d show Jeremiah an aitz sha’kaid, an almond-wood branch with leaves and bark? That would have made it far easier for Jeremiah to recognize the wood’s origin.

Once again, perhaps that is exactly the point. The message that Jeremiah will deliver to the people is a message of destruction and despair, a message of pain and death. Such a bitter message must be difficult for the prophet to deliver. Just as it is difficult for the prophet to identify the almond-tree staff, so must it be difficult to deliver words of calamity. As much as G-d needs to bring the punishment upon the Jewish people, He cannot do it with ease. Neither can the prophet who conveys G-d’s message rejoice in being the messenger of G-d. While Jeremiah is certainly a prophet of doom, he may not be a joyful prophet of doom. True, the evil will befall the people, but Jeremiah must share their pain. If he doesn’t share their pain, then he’s hardly a legitimate prophet.

For us, this is a profound lesson of life, whether the issues concern Jews or non-Jews, whether we’re dealing with the land of Israel or other people in various parts of the world. Even if we speak of those who seemingly deserve to be punished, for the Jew, the message of suffering can never be a joyous message. Says the book of Proverbs–Mishlei (24:17), “Bin’fol oy’veh’chah al tis’mach.” When your enemy falters, don’t rejoice. As much as we would like to rejoice (or even deserve to rejoice), don’t rejoice. It should be difficult for Jews to see even our most deserving enemies punished.

That is the bottom line of Judaism–the revered Jewish concept of the sanctity of human life. That’s why G-d had to stop the ancient Israelites from singing the Hallel, the Songs of Praise of G-d, as the Egyptians drowned. It’s our tradition. Fortunate are we to be the possessors of that remarkable tradition. The alternative would be unthinkable.

May you be blessed.