Reflection, Responsibility and Repentance
The combined parshiyot of Matot-Masei brings us to the end of the book of B’midbar, reviewing the journeys our ancestors took in the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness to the point they are ready to begin their conquest of the land. It also presents details of the idealized border of the land and its apportionment. The way the weekly readings of the Torah are organized, these sections are always read between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av, known as the “three weeks”. Coincidentally, this period commemorates the time from the breaching of the walls of both the First and Temple (by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the Romans in 70 CE) walls the Temples’ destruction on the 9th of AV. In each disaster, nearly one third of our people were killed, until the Sho’ah, the greatest disaster that befell the Jewish people. The haftorot selected for these weeks accordingly do not evoke the readings of the Torah but rather this season, a time of admonition.
The opening words of the prophet Jeremiah (read last week with parashah Pinchas) reflect the themes of divine providence and imminent doom. Yet Jeremiah also reveals a promise of God’s ultimate protection. The continuation of his message, read this week, is an extensive indictment of widespread faithlessness, ingratitude and apostasy, addressed to the entire nation. However, Jeremiah continues to offer hope, in that repentance, return to God, will lead to God’s blessing. The message of the prophets, from Moses to those who prophesied during the time of the First Temple is consistent – our presence in the land is conditional and based on our relationship with God and application of justice.
This period of the three weeks is then followed by seven weeks that lead to Rosh Hashanah. During those weeks, we read special haftarot from the prophet Isaiah providing a hopeful message of reconciliation and healing. This three week period thus presents us with the first intimation of spiritual growth. Just as the seed must be planted in the cold, dark ground before it sprouts, so too the individual must explore the deep and dark areas to achieve greater spiritual growth.
Jeremiah calls us to begin already that reflection on responsibility – not just on a personal level, but collective as well. The culmination of this first round of review is the ninth of Av, a fast day on a par with Yom Kippur.