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Friday, July 10, 2009

Parashat Pinchas - the Haftara

Pinchas - the Haftara
Jeremiah 1:1 – 2:3
Reading date: 11th July 2009 – 19th Tammuz 5769

Our Highlighted Haftara Text
“The word of Adonai came to me: What do you see, Jeremiah? I replied: I see a branch of an almond tree. Adonai said to me: You have seen right, for I am watchful to bring My word to pass.”Jeremiah 1:11-12

How is our rejection of YHVH with the Golden Calf connected to the loss of the Temple?

Normally, the haftara for parashat Pinchas is taken from the book of Kings and describes Elijah, like the eponymous character of the weekly portion of Pinchas as a 'zealot'. The passage from Kings includes the famous description of furious wind and earthquake and fire, but YHVH was not in these forces. Afterwards, there was a 'still small voice' a phrase that expresses experiencing the Divine Presence.

However, when Parashat Pinchas falls after the 17th of Tammuz, (as it does this year), instead of the regularly assigned haftara, the first of three special haftarot of admonition is read. These haftarot commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temples and deal with the punishment that will be meted out to the Jewish people. According to tradition, the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Babylonians (First Temple) and the Romans (Second Temple) on the 17th of Tammuz. The three haftarot are then followed by seven haftarot of consolation.

Jeremiah lived during the reign of King Josiah (635 BCE) who restored the Temple order 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.

The prophets often used metaphors and allegories of common objects and the natural world around them that was familiar to their listeners. Thos who do not live in Israel or speak Hebrew miss a lot of the rich meaning in the allusions of biblical language.

In Jeremiah's opening prophecy, God shows him an almond branch, and we are told that this signifies that YHVH is 'watchful' to bring the events to fruition. Of course, reading the English, we miss the pun: the Hebrew word for almond, ‘shaked’ (rhymes with "head") means 'to be watchful ‘shoked’. Later Jeremiah continues to use this verb. YHVH says, "And it shall come to pass that as I have watched over ‘shakadati’ them to uproot and to break down, to demolish and destroy and harm, so now will I watch over ‘eshkod’ them to build and to plant" (Jer. 31:28). The almond becomes a symbol of YHVH's watchfulness. But we still don't get it. Why an almond branch? Why should the almond in fact be a symbol of 'being watchful' or 'being reliable'?

Many of us are familiar with the connection to almonds from the Tu B'Shvat song “Hashkadiyah porachat”, mistranslated as "The almond tree's in blossom..." as ‘shkediyah’ is actually an almond orchard, not an almond tree. But we know from that song and Tu B'shevat, that the almond tree is a symbol of springtime in Israel and associated with Tu B'shevat because it dramatically bursts into pink and white blossoms (as early as February or even January!) before its leaves appear. Both wild (bitter) and domestic varieties of almonds grow in Israel. (The wild variety can be eaten with the rind when young, but in its later stages requires roasting to destroy poisonous alkaloids.)

Because the almond is the first tree to bloom, and passes rapidly through several beautiful and dramatic stages of growth, it becomes a symbol of YHVH's watchfulness. Aaron’s staff was also made of almond wood (Numbers 17). Like the tree, this rod miraculously bloomed overnight and bore almonds to validate Aaron’s claim to the priesthood! The commentators ask why Aaron’s rod was made from almond wood. Rashi answers: ‘Because it is the first tree to blossom.’ This indicates that YHVH would quickly punish those who attempt to challenge the authority of the priests. According to the Mekhilta, this rod was one of the items created the first week of Creation before Shabbat. The kings of Judah continued to use this staff until the destruction of the Temple when it disappeared. It is said that Elijah will give this same almond rod to the Messiah (Numbers Rabbah 18:23). The almond branch is therefore a symbol of royal/priestly authority. Jeremiah's vision of an almond branch connects YHVH's watchfulness with the symbolism of sovereignty.

But why was this passage from Jeremiah chosen for the first of the three weeks between the 17th of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av (Tisha b'Av). What is the connection between almonds and the 17th of Tammuz? Well, it turns out, that the almond nut in fact ripens in late summer, around the time of Tisha b’Av! The Talmud further connects the almond ripening to the destruction of the Temple: ‘Just as 21 days elapse from the time the almond sends forth its blossom until the fruit ripens, so 21 days passed from the time the city was breached until the Temple was destroyed,’ (Jerusalem Talmud, Ta’anit 4:8). So the 21 days of the almond's ripening correspond to the three week period between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av. But that doesn't make sense. We already determined that the almond flowering is the first of the season, in early spring! The late summer fruit and the Talmud’s assertion that the almond produces its fruit [only] 21 days after its flowers appear (Bekhorot 8a) is confusing. This discrepancy can be resolved by examining how the almond grows more closely. It turns out that there are two ripening periods of the almond. The almond can be eaten fresh; the green fruit are eaten whole and are considered a Passover delicacy by many Oriental Jews. It is only the hard 'nut' which we are more familiar with that ripens six months later. The 'fresh' almond in fact appears 21 days after its flowers.

The 17th of Tammuz this week marks the beginning of the period of mourning for the destruction of the Temple(s). But the Rabbis attribute a number of catastrophes to that date. According to tradition, one of the gravest sins of the Israelites in the wilderness--the Golden Calf--occurred on the 17th of Tammuz. How is the ‘Egel HaZahav’ (the Golden Calf) connected to the 17th of Tammuz? The Israelites turned to the Golden Calf because they felt lost and abandoned by YHVH. YHVH was abandoned by the people. Centuries later, these feelings were rekindled with the destruction of the Temple and the loss of Jewish sovereignty.

This Shabbat, ponder the issue of sovereignty today, and the idea of YHVH's watchfulness being restored miraculously 'overnight'-- while munching on some almonds.

Shabbat Shalom

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