Hevel: Haftara for the Three Weeks – Week Two

I know,  I know. What a creative and exciting title. But there is so much to say about this Haftara, and unfortunately, I have such little time!

Once again, we are reading from Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah Chapter 2). I really don’t have much time to delve into this, and there are such great turns of phrase that really get the message across. Please read it closely and see for yourself – and if you are in need of a translation – the New JPS translation does a good job of making things readable and refined  for the contemporary reader.

I am thinking about the phrase וילכו אחרי ההבל ויהבלו – which cannot be perfectly translated, especially since there are many ways of translating “hevel!” But in short – it constitutes a rebuke at those who abandoned God and the ways of goodness and substance to wander – transfixed? (my insertion – after vapour – after that which is worthless, ephemeral, illusory, fleeting. There is also a neat play on words in that it sounds like “Ba’al” (the foreign deity which they were following), and there also may be a connection between “hevel” here (literally “vapour” and the sad metaphor about them abandoning God, a “living natural spring” (mekor mayyim hayyim) to instead hew themselves leaky cisterns which cannot contain water. In other words – they are going after mere vapour – evaporated nothing – instead of water.

This idea resonated with me, partly because I am thinking and reading about the meaning and function of the word “hevel” within the book of Qoheleth and within certain Psalms (mizmorim), and partly because I, and I imagine many of us – struggle with wandering or straying after vanity. In my case, I waste far too much time on Facebook, and I am trying to cut it down by blocking my newsfeed on my computer (at least in Google Chrome).  But I still have it on my phone, etc. So many “news” stories are about unsubstantial topics and devolve into mere gossip, if not worse.

Anyway, part of a message of Yirmiyahu’s prophecy is to take stock of ourselves, and to undergo some soul searching – are we staying true to what is truly important, or are we willfully or passively letting ourselves stray, distracted by instant gratification and other vacuous vanities? How much do we value and cherish our time, and how much are we mindful of how we use it?

There is a lot to think about, and there are many more specific messages. I hope to perhaps examine these passages more in the future, but for now, here is some food for thought.

A Bubbling Pot and an Almond Stick (and a short introduction to this blog)

As the fast of the 17th of Tammuz came out earlier this week, this Shabbat is the first with the special Haftarot for the “Three Weeks” of mourning leading up to the 9th of Av (Tisha B’Av). Accordingly, we read of the Divine inauguration (or consecration) of Yirmiyahu as prophet. Yirmiyahu is presented with a series of visions, but what does he really see?

How appropriate that this week’s haftarah is a fusion of ideas and food-related items- just in time for the first post on this blog! This blog is intended as a vehicle to discuss Navi (starting with Haftarot) and food, on  a weekly basis. There may be more of one element than the other. I hope that the Tanakh content will generally be more than the food content, but we’ll see. As for the food – this will not necessarily be a fancy recipe blog – I just may mention some food or meal items from the week, with or without full recipes.

As the fast of the 17th of Tammuz came out earlier this week, this Shabbat (Parashat Pinchas, this year) is the first with the special Haftarot for the “Three Weeks” of mourning leading up to the 9th of Av (Tisha B’Av). Accordingly, we read of the Divine inauguration (or consecration) of Yirmiyahu as prophet.

Yirmiyahu is a prophet who lives in the vicinity of Jerusalem right before (and during) the Babylonian Destruction of Jerusalem and the First Beit HaMikdash (Temple). Though Yirmiyahu earnestly and passionately tries to persuade the people to change their ways and to do what they can to prevent the coming doom, they consistently do the opposite of what he suggests (even after the brunt of the Destruction, which he foretold). Attempts on Yirmiyahu’s life, some apparently state-sanctioned, happen a number of times. Through it all, he remains devoted to his people, and even when a Babylonian official offers him a cozy position in the Babylonian court, Yirmiyahu refuses to leave his people.

In this week’s haftarah- in the first chapter of Yirmiyahu, God informs Yirmiyahu of his mission as prophet. Yirmiyahu protests that he is too young (or inexperienced), but God tells him not to be afraid. He presents Yirmiyahu with a series of visions. Yirmiyahu’s task here is to describe what he sees in these visions- God asks Yirmiyahu “what do/did you see?” The answer may not be as easy as it may appear, considering that the prophet is to reliably relay Divine messages.

The second vision is that of a bubbling pot, and Yirmiyahu describes it as facing away from the north – or northward (there are varying opinions about the meaning of the biblical words u-panav mi-penei tzafonah ופניו מפני צפונה).

A boiling pot full of meat also appears in the Book of Yehezkel (Ezekiel 11  and 24). The image is first used by over-confident people to describe their own safety, but God tells Yehezkel that the true meaning is that of doom. Does Yirmiyahu immediately know which metaphor his cauldron signifies?

God corrects or elaborates upon Yirmiyahu’s description of it, explaining that the bubbling pot symbolizes the disaster that is to come from the north.

After the first vision, which Yirmiyahu describes as an “almond stick” – a “makel shaked” God replies that he has “seen well”, as God will hasten (shoked) to fulfill his word — “shaked” and “shoked” constituting a type of wordplay. (Another example of wordplay connected with a stick appears in the Book of Bemidbar (Numbers 21:7-9), when Moshe constructs a nehash nehoshet – נחש נחשת – which he places on a pole, after God commands him to place a seraph on a pole in response to the nation’s complaints about the nehashim ha-seraphim – the fiery snakes. Anyone who is bitten – nashukh- gazes toward the pole will survive the snakebites).

Is Yirmiyahu’s skill that he has correctly identified the type of wood? Or is it that he has described the type of rod? And is the wood indeed almond wood – an almond branch, or is Yirmiyahu constructing his own wordplay – calling it a “quick rod”? In Hebrew, the word Yirmiyahu uses for stick is “makel” – מקלBut there are other words for “wood stick” in Hebrew, each with a different shade of meaning. A mash’en is a leaning-stick used for support shevet and a mateh each mean a staff-  and can denote a tribe or tribal staff, but can also be used in negative contexts as a rod of anger, an anaf  is a branch, and a makel  is a rod, staff, tree branch, or (perhaps) wand – mostly in neutral or positive contexts.

It sounds like the role of the stick is not immediately apparent to Yirmiyahu.

It is telling, then, that he confidently describes the stick as “shaked” – almond. Could the reason for his certainty be the other almond stick mentioned in Tanakh?

In the Book of Bemidbar (Numbers 17: 16-28), after Korach challenges the kehuna (priesthood) being made up of Aharon and his descendants, God commands Moshe to collect a staff from each of the tribes, and bring them to the Tent of Meeting. The chosen staff (or tribe) will be the one whose staff buds or blossoms. Aharon’s staff is the one that flowers and bears almonds.

God commands Moshe to place this almond staff with the testimony (the Ark of the Covenants with the Stone Tablets) to serve as a sign for the “rebels” and to quell the “murmurings” against Aharon.

Almonds (or almond shapes) also appear in vessels of the Beit HaMikdash, such as the Menorah branches.

Yirmiyahu correctly perceives God’s vision as a sign – perhaps a sign for the “rebels” among the people of Yehuda.

Sure enough, God castigates the people of Yehuda for their corruption and abandonment of God. Yirmiyahu is to speak to them. He is to be strong in the face of a very, very tough audience, but God assures Yirmiyahu that He will be with him.

The food of the week will be in a different post.