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Jewish Journal

The Man of Lonesome Sorrow

Parshat Mattot-Maseh (Numbers 30:2 - 36:13)


by Rabbi Ed Feinstein

July 4, 2002 | 8:00 pm

He awoke from the nightmare with a scream, as he had every night for almost 40 years. His heart raced, his body drenched in sweat, his mind filled with vivid images of fiery destruction. He saw rivulets of blood flowing through the streets of Jerusalem, the Holy Temple ground into ashes, the lifeless bodies of the priests scattered about the Temple Mount.

The dreams began after Jeremiah's 17th birthday. At first, they were benign, inspiring.

Before I created you in the womb, I selected you; before you were born, I consecrated you. I appointed you a prophet over the nations.

I replied, Ah, Lord God! I don't know how to speak, I am still a boy.

And the Lord said to me: Do not say, "I am still a boy," but go where I send you, and speak whatever I command you.

See, I appoint you this day over nations and kingdoms: To uproot and to pull down; to destroy and to overthrow; to build and to plant. (Jeremiah 1:5-10)

The nightmares came soon thereafter. As a child, he'd been taught that the land of Israel sensed and responded to the behavior of its inhabitants. "You shall not defile the land in which you live, in which I Myself abide, for I the Lord abide among the Israelite people." (Numbers 35:34) Suddenly, he could viscerally feel the revulsion of the land for its immoral populace. He was nauseated.

I brought you to this country of fertile land to enjoy its fruit and its bounty, but you came and defiled My land. You made My possession abhorrent. (Jeremiah 2:7).

Assaulted by the horrid visions each night, he came to loathe the petty evils and everyday cruelties accepted in polite society. The daily diet of deceit, betrayal and corruption -- the common fare of all urban society -- disgusted him. Everything which passed for normal, every commonplace practice of business, politics, religion, especially religion, appeared to him as a precursor to the coming catastrophe. He had no outlet for his rage but to proclaim the vision from the steps of the Holy Temple.

Will you steal and murder and commit adultery and swear falsely and sacrifice to Baal and follow other gods who you have not experienced and then come and stand before Me in this house which bears My name and say, "We are safe?" Safe to do all these abhorrent things? (Jeremiah 7:9-12)

The more bizarre his behavior, the more he became an anathema to family, community and state. Shamed and castigated, he was incarcerated, if not as a dangerous criminal, then as a lunatic and a social nuisance. His lonely sadness soon descended into despair.

Woe is me, my mother, that you ever bore me, a man of conflict and strife with all the land! I have not lent, and I have not borrowed; yet, everyone curses me! (Jeremiah 15:10) Why did I ever issue from the womb; to see misery and woe; to spend all my days in shame! (Jeremiah 20:18)

He had failed. Jerusalem was destined for destruction and nothing could save her. The carcasses of this people shall be food for the birds of the sky and the beasts of the earth, with none to frighten them off. And I will silence in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem the sound of joy and gladness, the song of the bridegroom and the bride. For the whole land shall fall to ruin. (Jeremiah 7:34)

Jeremiah awoke from the nightmare with a fearsome scream. But he knew that this day's end would be different. The onslaught had begun. The Babylonian armies arrived and besieged the city. As he had seen thousands of times in his dreams, the walls crumbled, the city filled with terrified screams, the Holy Temple burned.

But the prophet Jeremiah, for the first time in 40 years, slept soundly. The horrible nightmares were gone; replaced by a new vision -- of new beginning, of rebirth, of renewal. Divine love replaced divine revulsion. The prophet of national doom turned into a champion of spiritual resilience. With the same passion he had once hurled words of despair, he now pleaded with his people to hold fast to hope.

I will build you firmly again, oh maiden Israel! Again you shall take up your timbrels and go forth to the rhythm of the dancers.

For the day is coming when the watchmen shall proclaim on the heights of Ephraim: Come, let us go up to Zion, to the Lord our God!

Thus says the Lord: Restrain your voice from weeping; your eyes from shedding tears. There is hope for your future -- declares the Lord." Your children shall return to their country. (Jeremiah 31:4-6, 16-17)

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