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September 1, 2014 | 6th Elul 5774

Studying the Prophets

April 7, 2002
Marc Rosenstein


I

Ever since rabbinical school (at least), I have had a fascination with the book of Jeremiah. I see Jeremiah as one of the most human characters in the Bible. The drama of his confrontations with God and man is powerfully depicted in the words of his book. Moreover, the parallels between his experiences and the experiences of our own lives are hard to miss. Recently I decided to try to make a more systematic study of this book that I love so much but never really just read through, so I have been trying to study one chapter every morning. There are certainly sections in which the Hebrew is not only difficult but also even totally inscrutable; but there are others whose poetic power and human authenticity take your breath away.

In particular, I always gravitate back to the accounts of Jeremiah’s run-ins with the political establishment of his day (especially chapters 26-29 and 36-38). He tried to tell them that God’s favor was conditional on their behavior and that God would not support their rebellion against Babylon - whose role in history was as God’s instrument of chastisement. And they branded him a traitor and threw him in the dungeon; and he would have been executed (or lynched) if not, apparently, for the fact that he was not alone in his views, and was quietly rescued by some persons of power in the state.

II

Like many people in Israel today, I have been agonizing over what is to be done. No matter how terribly the Palestinians have suffered under our occupation, it does not seem that terrorism is the way to a solution; and who can guarantee that this terror comes as a response to occupation and not as a response to the existence of Israel in general. And yet, it is hard to imagine that anyone really believes that the end of the current war will be the end of terrorism, and a peaceful resolution. Moreover, I cannot imagine any reasonable solution that does not involve a Palestinian state and the elimination of a significant portion of the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

Therefore, reluctantly and ambivalently, out of a sense that it is better to do something than to do nothing, I drove with a few friends to the Peace Coalition demonstration in Tel Aviv last night. The last political demonstration I attended in this country was exactly 20 years ago, when the largest demonstration ever was held at the same spot, demanding a commission of inquiry into Sabra and Shatilla. That night there were 400,000 present. Last night there were somewhere between 5,000 and 15,000. The mood was calm, serious. Neither a hippy love-in nor an outpouring of anger. Just a cross section of Israel, quietly carrying “stop the bloodshed, get out of the territories” signs. Not a big deal, on a warm, drizzly night. But it was the first serious public event held by the left in the past year.

III

Recently, I came across the following, in “The Reasons for My Involvement in the Peace Movement” (1973) by Abraham Joshua Heschel:

From [the prophets] I learned the niggardliness of our moral comprehension, the incapacity to sense the depth of misery caused by our own failures. It became quite clear to me that while our eyes are witness to the callousness and cruelty of man, our heart tries to obliterate the memories, to calm the nerves, and to silence our conscience.

There is an immense silent agony in the world, and the task of man is to be a voice for the plundered poor, to prevent the desecration of the soul and the violation of our dream of honesty.

The more deeply immersed I became in the thinking of the prophets, the more powerfully it became clear to me what the lives of the prophets ought to convey: that morally speaking there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings. It also became clear to me that in regard to cruelties committed in the name of a free society, some are guilty, while all are responsible.

 

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