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Friday, July 17, 2009

Matot Masei - The Haftara

Matot – Masei – the Haftara
Jeremiah 2:4-28, 3:4
Reading date: 18th July 2009 – 26th Tammuz 5769

Our Highlighted Haftara Text

“Though you wash yourself with lye and use more and more soap, the stain of your guilt remains before Me, says YHVH Adonai.”Jeremiah 2:22

Our covenant with the Fountain of Living waters can be reestablished.

We continue this week with the second installment of the three special Haftarot of Admonition. These correspond to the three weeks between the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha b'Av. We pick up from where we left off last week. The haftara is taken from Jeremiah 2:4-28. Then Ashkenazim conclude with a single verse, 3:4; Sephardim read verses 4:1-2 instead. These additional verses are so the passage ends on a positive optimistic note.

Our final encounter with Jeremiah in this yearly cycle of reading contains much we have seen before: the image of YHVH, the Fount of living waters forsaken, (see Bechukotai), Israel as prostitute (see Shlach), the plaintive cry of 'Eich' (Jer. 2:23) foreshadowing the opening 'Eichah' of Lamentations.

This week we read the combined portions of Matot - Masei, concluding the book of Numbers.

Jeremiah lived during the reign of King Josiah (635 BCE) who restored the Temple cult and instituted religious reforms after finding an ancient scroll believed to be the book of Deuteronomy. Some scholars identify Jeremiah as the author of the book of Deuteronomy. The Kingdom of Judah was caught in the crossfire between the superpowers of Egypt to the south and the Babylonians in the North. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had already been destroyed by the Assyrians in 721 BCE. Egypt marched through the land of Israel to attack Babylonia, and en route battled with the Israelites at Megiddo, killing Josiah. The Egyptians however were defeated by Nebuchadnezzar in 605 BCE, and Jerusalem came under Nebuchadnezzar's rule. In 586 BCE Jerusalem was razed and the Temple destroyed. The religious and political elite were exiled to Babylonia, but a remnant of the Jewish population fled to Egypt and took Jeremiah with them.

"Out, damned spot." (Shakespeare's Macbeth, Act I:V). Blood stains certainly have a way of indelibly marking one's guilt. No matter how hard Lady Macbeth scrubs, she can't get her hands clean. Jeremiah uses a similar washing metaphor: "Though you wash yourself with lye, and use more and more soap, the stain of your guilt remains before Me, says Your Lord Adonai" (Jer. 2:22).

The Hebrew ‘neter’ is translated here as lye; the English natron and nitrate are from the same root. Lye or soda is a chemical base that was used as a cleansing agent in biblical times. Lye (like baking soda) mixed with vinegar (mentioned in Proverbs 25:20) would bubble energetically. Today lye refers to sodium or potassium nitrate; in the Bible, it probably referred to sodium carbonate, called in Arabic ‘natrun’, which can be found as a deposit underneath layers of common salt. A number of plants containing soda and potash that grow in Israel were dissolved in oil and used to make a liquid soap.

A second word, ‘borit’, (rendered here as 'soap') refers to possibly one of several plants called ‘soap plants’ such as the soapwort (Saponaria) that have cleansing properties and were used locally in early times. Sabonin is the lather-producing substance found in some plants and is poisonous if taken internally. The biblical terms are used to describe both the physical cleaning of clothes and hands (Job 9:30) as well as metaphorical cleanliness (Job 22:30).
If we've committed an act that pollutes us, we can't feel clean no matter how long we spend in the shower. Jeremiah understands that until we change our behavior, our washing with soap is in vain. At the conclusion of the book of Leviticus, the haftara from Jeremiah also referred to abandoning YHVH, ‘Mikveh Yisrael’, as forsaking the Fountain of Living Waters. But our relationship with YHVH can be restored if we stop chasing after false gods and return to the one true YHVH. First we need repentance, forgiveness and restoration before our covenant with the Fountain of Living waters will be reestablished. And if we return, and remove our abominations from YHVH's presence, Jeremiah promises this blessing that, "Nations shall bless themselves by you and praise themselves by you" (4:2).

Shabbat Shalom

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