web analytics
August 3, 2015 / 18 Av, 5775
At a Glance
Judaism
Sponsored Post


Home » Judaism » Parsha »

Two Sides Of The Same Coin


During The Three Weeks between 17 Tammuz and Tisha B’Av, as we recall the destruction of the Temples, we read three of the most searing passages in the prophetic literature, the first two from the opening of the book of Jeremiah, the third, next week, from the first chapter of Isaiah.

At perhaps no other time of the year are we so acutely aware of the enduring force of ancient Israel’s great visionaries. The prophets had no power. They were not kings or members of the royal court. They were (usually) not priests or members of the religious establishment. They held no office. They were not elected. Often they were deeply unpopular, none more so than the author of this week’s haftarah, Jeremiah, who was arrested, flogged, abused, put on trial and only narrowly escaped with his life. Only rarely were the prophets heeded in their lifetimes: the one clear exception was Jonah, and he spoke to non-Jews, the citizens of Nineveh. Yet their words were recorded for posterity and became a major feature of Tanach. They were the world’s first social critics, and their message continues through the centuries. As Kierkegaard almost said: when a king dies, his power ends; when a prophet dies, his influence begins.

What was distinctive about the prophet was not that he foretold the future. The ancient world was full of such people: soothsayers, oracles, readers of runes, shamans and other diviners, each of whom claimed the inside track with the forces that govern fate and “shape our ends, rough-hew them how we will.” Judaism has no time for such people. The Torah bans one “who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead” (Deuteronomy 18:10-11). It disbelieves such practices because it believes in human freedom. The future is not pre-scripted. It depends on us, and the choices we make. If a prediction comes true it has succeeded; if a prophecy comes true it has failed. The prophet tells of the future that will happen if we do not heed the danger and mend our ways. He (or she – there were seven biblical prophetesses) does not predict; he warns.

Nor was the prophet distinctive in blessing or cursing the people. That was Bilam’s gift, not Isaiah’s or Jeremiah’s. In Judaism, blessing comes through priests, not prophets.

Several things made the prophets unique. The first was his or her sense of history. The prophets were the first people to see God in history. We tend to take our sense of time for granted. Time happens. Time flows. As the saying goes: time is God’s way of keeping everything from happening at once. But actually there are several ways of relating to time, and different civilizations have perceived it differently.

There is cyclical time: time as the slow turning of the seasons, or the cycle of birth, growth, decline and death. Cyclical time is time as it occurs in nature. Some trees have long lives; most fruit flies have short ones. But all that lives, dies. The species endure; individual members do not. Kohelet contains the most famous expression of cyclical time in Judaism: “The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course … What has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

Then there is linear time: time as an inexorable sequence of cause and effect. The French astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace gave this idea its most famous expression in 1814 when he said that if you “know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed,” together with all the laws of physics and chemistry, then “nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present” before your eyes. When applied to society and history, this is known as historical inevitability.

Finally there is time as a mere sequence of events with no underlying plot or theme. This leads to the kind of historical writing pioneered by the scholars of ancient Greece, Herodotus and Thucydides.

Each of these has its place – the first in biology, the second in physics, the third in secular history. But none was time as the prophets understood it. The prophets saw time as the arena in which the great drama between God and humanity was played out, especially in the history of Israel. If Israel was faithful to its mission, its covenant, it would flourish. If it was unfaithful, it would fail. It would suffer defeat and exile. That is what Jeremiah never tired of telling his contemporaries.

The second prophetic insight was the unbreakable connection between monotheism and morality. Somehow the prophets sensed – it is implicit in all their words, though they do not explain it explicitly – that idolatry was not just false. It was also corrupting. It saw the universe as a multiplicity of powers that often clashed. The battle went to the strong. Might defeated right. The fittest survived while the weak perished.

The prophets opposed this with all their force. For them the power of God was secondary; what mattered was the righteousness of God. Precisely because God loved and had redeemed Israel, Israel owed Him loyalty as their sole ultimate sovereign. And if they were unfaithful to God they would also be unfaithful to their fellow humans. They would lie, rob, and cheat: Jeremiah doubts whether there was one honest person in the whole of Jerusalem (Jeremiah 5:1). They would become sexually adulterous and promiscuous: “I supplied all their needs, yet they committed adultery and thronged to the houses of prostitutes. They are well-fed, lusty stallions, each neighing for another man’s wife” (Jeremiah 5:7-8).

Their third great insight was the primacy of ethics over politics. The prophets have surprisingly little to say about politics. Yes, Samuel was wary of monarchy but we find almost nothing in Isaiah or Jeremiah about the way Israel/Judah should be governed. Instead we hear a constant insistence that the strength of a nation – certainly of Israel/Judah – is not military or demographic but moral and spiritual. If the people keep faith with God and with one another, no force on earth can defeat them. If they do not, no force can save them. As Jeremiah says in this week’s haftarah, they will discover too late that their false gods offered false comfort:

“They say to wood, ‘You are my father,’ and to stone, ‘You gave me birth.’ They have turned their backs to me and not their faces; yet when they are in trouble, they say, ‘Come and save us!’ Where then are the gods you made for yourselves? Let them come if they can save you when you are in trouble! For you have as many gods as you have towns, O Judah” (Jeremiah 2: 27-28).

Jeremiah, the most passionate and tormented of all the prophets, has gone down in history as the prophet of doom. Yet this is unfair. He was also supremely a prophet of hope. He is the man who said that the people of Israel would be as eternal as the sun, moon and stars (Jeremiah 31). He is the man who, while the Babylonians were laying siege to Jerusalem, bought a field as a public gesture of faith that Jews would return from exile: “For this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: ‘Houses, fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land’ ” (Jeremiah 32).

Jeremiah’s feelings of doom and hope were not in conflict: there were two sides of the same coin. The God who sentenced His people to exile would be the God who brought them back, for though His people might forsake Him, He would never forsake them. Jeremiah may have lost faith in people; he never lost faith in God.

Prophecy ceased in Israel with Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi in the Second Temple era. But the prophetic truths have not ceased to be true. Only by being faithful to God do people stay faithful to one another. Only by being open to a power greater than themselves do people become greater than themselves. Only by understanding the deep forces that shape history can a people defeat the ravages of history. It took a long time for biblical Israel to learn these truths, and a very long time indeed before they returned to their land – reentering the arena of history. We must never forget them again.

Adapted from “Covenant & Conversation,” a collection of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s parshiyot hashavua essays, to be published by Maggid Books, an imprint of Koren Publishers Jerusalem (www.korenpub.com), in conjunction with the Orthodox Union.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth since 1991, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Koren Sacks Rosh HaShana Mahzor” (Koren Publishers Jerusalem).

About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.”


If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.

Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.

If you promote any foreign religions, gods or messiahs, lies about Israel, anti-Semitism, or advocate violence (except against terrorists), your permission to comment may be revoked.

No Responses to “Two Sides Of The Same Coin”

Comments are closed.

Current Top Story
US Senator Chuck Schumer
Report: Schumer Will Join Republicans and Kill Iran Deal
Latest Judaism Stories
Torat-Hakehillah-logo-NEW

By internalizing the Exodus, it is as if we ourselves were redeemed from Egypt.

Neihaus-073115

Each Shabbos we add the tefilla of “Ritzei” to Birchas HaMazon. In it we ask Hashem that on this day of Shabbos He should be pleased with us and save us. What exactly do we want to be saved from? Before we answer this question, let’s talk about this Friday, the 15th of Av. Many […]

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Amongst the greatest disagreements in Judaism is the understanding of the 1st of the 10 Commandments

Daf-Yomi-logo

The Day He Heard
‘One May Seek Revocation Of A Confimation’
(Nedarim 69a)

The director picked up the phone to Rabbi Dayan. “One of our counselors lost his check,” he said. “Do we have to issue a new one or is it his loss?”

Six events occurred on Tu B’Av, the 15th of Av, making it a festive day in the Jewish calendar.

Why would Moshe Rabbeinu have thought that the vow that disallowed him to enter Eretz Yisrael was annulled simply because he was allowed to conquer and enter the land of Sichon and Og?

Question: When a stranger approaches a congregant in shul asking for tzedakah, should the congregant verify that the person’s need is genuine? Furthermore, what constitutes tzedakah? Is a donation to a synagogue, yeshiva, or hospital considered tzedakah?

Zvi Kirschner
(Via E-Mail)

Snow in Jerusalem! For many New Englanders like me, snow pulls at our nostalgic heartstrings like nothing else can.

Man has conflicting wishes and desires. Man has forces pulling him in competing directions.

Perhaps the admonition here is that we should not trivialize the events of the past by saying that they are irrelevant to the modern Jew.

One must view the settlement of Israel in a positive light. Thinking otherwise is a grievous sin.

Reaching a stronger understanding of what Moses actually did to prevent him from entering the land

Anti-Zionism, today’s anti-Semitism, has gone viral, tragically supported globally & by many Jews

More Articles from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Amongst the greatest disagreements in Judaism is the understanding of the 1st of the 10 Commandments

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

“When a king dies his power ends; when a prophet dies his influence begins” & their words echo today

Sharing influence is like lighting a candle with another: it doesn’t mean having less; you have more

All agree that Jews ARE different. How? Why? The Bible’s answer is surprising and profound.

Of Chukkim “Satan and the nations of the world made fun.” They may appear irrational & superstitious

Heaven answered Moshe dramatically. He was proved right. End of revolt. End of story- Not at all…

There’s no obligation TO wear tzitzit; opting to wear them symbolizes free acceptance of the mitzvot

Sadly, we’re no longer an edah; We’ve fissured and fractured: Orthodox & Reform; religious & secular

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/judaism/parsha/two-sides-of-the-same-coin/2012/07/18/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: