This week’s haftara coming, as it does, so soon after Shiva Asar b’Tammuz, is the first of the “three haftarot of rebuke.” If Shiva Asar b’Tammuz had fallen a little later, then we’d be reading instead about Eliyahu Hanavi and talking about why the Midrash says that Pinchas is Eliyahu. But here we are, instead reading the opening passages of Sefer Yirmiyahu, author of Eicha, about how the trouble will come from the north. We have begun the period of the Three Weeks – bein hametzarim, in the straits of time. Accordingly, over the next three weeks we will talk about the haftarot of this difficult time and the difficult lessons we are meant to be learning.
The idea of patterns in time is fundamental to understanding the Hebrew calendar. Most Jewish people are familiar with the cycle of the Jewish year. As much as the holidays commemorate significant events, they also signify times of the year that have certain spiritual characteristics. We like to talk about this around Pesach, but it applies equally well to the weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av.
The Gemara in Taanit teaches (30b) that every one who mourns the destruction of Yerushalayim will merit seeing her rebuilt. In order to benefit fully from the ebb and flow of the Jewish calendar, it is necessary to experience its peaks as much as its troughs. Indeed, even at the heights of our rejoicing we can’t escape thinking of what is not as it should be, and in the depths of our despair we never stop seeing the light from the crest of the hill.
The Malbim has a beautiful commentary on the dream of Yaakov (Bereishit 28). He explains that Yaakov is a ladder bridging the higher and the lower worlds. Until Yaakov had his dream, the world went through its cycles and the bounty fell from heaven at designated times. The wise among the nations would know the times and the places to gather it. But Yaakov, by means of his ladder, could climb up and take it. Of Bilaam, too, the Gemara teaches (Sanhedrin 105b) that his power derived from his ability to sense the times when Hashem was angry. It is fair to say that one of the times reserved for the “anger” of Hashem are the three weeks preceding Tisha B’Av when we read the three haftarot of rebuke, beginning with this one.
What does it mean for Hashem to be angry and why would he rebuke us? Rabbenu Bechaya in his commentary on Chukat says in the name of the Rambam that when we learn Hashem became angry with Moshe, it was because of the emergence of a moral blemish in Moshe. This blemish itself arose from Moshe’s anger with the people of Israel. When we speak of Hashem being angry, what we really mean is that we are not living up to the standards that He has set for us and that our own shortcomings elicit a response from Him that seems unpleasant to us. When He rebukes us, it is to correct us for our own good.
Rabbenu Bechaya ties this back into our previous discussion about the patterns governing the universe. Moshe’s anger was a disruption of the natural order. His purpose in this world was to bring Israel and the whole universe to the realization of their ultimate good – and when he became angry without any constructive purpose, he held them back and dragged them down instead. This was, literally, the end of the world. When Hashem rebukes us, on the other hand – when He is angry with us – this is not a change in His essence because His essence never changes. Rather, His anger is another tool by which he brings us closer to his service because of His love for us.