Our haftarah is taken from the last part of the book of Jeremiah, in which he delivers a number of prophecies concerning Israel’s neighboring nations.

The time was one of great upheaval. Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia was conquering one empire after another, soon making his nation the superpower of the time. One of the greatest rival empires to Babylonia was Egypt. In this reading, Jeremiah foresees the defeat of the Egyptian Pharaoh and his nation by the Babylonians.

He begins with calling on Egypt to mobilize in preparation for a battle that would take place with Babylonia, some years after the latter would destroy Judea. Egypt would suffer total defeat, her mercenaries sent fleeing to their homelands. The cause for Egypt’s defeat would be by Divine ordinance: G‑d had taken an irrevocable oath that Egypt would fall. (The reason for Egypt’s punishment was because they had promised the Judean kingdom to fight with them against Nebuchadnezzar. When, however, Judea was attacked, Egypt failed to send any help.1)

Soon, the Egyptians who enjoyed a prosperous life until then would go into exile. Even the aristocrats, indeed the king himself with his powerful army, would not withstand the Babylonian onslaught.

Nevertheless, after some time, the state of defeat and subservience to Babylonia would come to an end.2 At that time the Egyptians would regain some of their power and a semblance of their original sovereignty. Upon seeing this, the Jews could feel hurt: What about us? Why are we failing to return to our original state of glory? To this prophet responds in a reassuring tone: “Have no fear, My servant Jacob.” Although it will take more time, G‑d will never forsake His people, and in the end they will return to their land in peace and security. Even if the Jews would see the total destruction of the empires who took them captive, or major wars between the nations amongst whom they lived, they still should not fear. Yes, they would have to suffer, but they would always survive.3

Your shul will be relocating

“As I live… like Tabor among the mountains and like Carmel by the sea, so shall he come.” The simple meaning of the verse is that Jeremiah is conveying G‑d’s oath that a downfall will surely come upon Pharaoh and the Egyptian nation. The reference to Mounts Tabor and Carmel, according to most commentaries, is an expression of affirmation: just as Tabor and Carmel cannot be moved from their place, so too will the oath of G‑d be firm and immutable.

It is interesting that in the Talmud there is an inference from this verse in quite the opposite direction:

It has been taught: R. Elazar HaKappar says: The synagogues and study houses in Babylonia will in time to come be replanted in the Land of Israel, as it says, “For as Tabor among the mountains and as Carmel by the sea came.” Now, we may draw a logical inference from here: If Carmel and Tabor, which came only on a single occasion to learn the Torah, were set in the Land of Israel, how much more so with the synagogues and study houses of learning, where the Torah is read and spread throughout the land.4

When reading the verse above literally, it does indeed read in this way: “Just like Tabor and Carmel, so shall he come”—as if to say that there was a time when Tabor and Carmel also “came.” This, as the Talmud explains, was at the time when the Torah was given. The Midrash elaborates: “When G‑d came to give the Torah, the mountains were contesting and saying, ‘Let the Torah be given on me’. [At that time] Mount Tabor came from Beit Elim, and Mount Carmel from Aspamia…”5

The commentary Ben Yehoyada on the Talmud6 says that this is not to be taken literally, but rather it is a reference to the spiritual elements (or “shadow,” as he calls it) of these mountains, which “came” and wanted the Torah to be given on them. As the Talmud above continues, G‑d rewarded these mountains by having them “set” in Israel. Although these mountains were already physically in the Holy Land, G‑d enhanced their existence and their vitality, bringing them to a higher level of sanctity within the spiritual “Land of Israel.” Ben Yehoyada understands the conclusion of the Talmud with regard to the houses of study and prayer in a similar fashion: although physically these structures are in the Diaspora, G‑d will in time to come elevate them to the sanctity of the land of Israel.

Many differ, however, with this, at least as far as the future is concerned. They understand that just as the Jews themselves will relocate from the Diaspora to Israel, so to will their houses of prayer and study actually relocate with them.7

Fear not, My servant Jacob

A custom in many Jewish communities is the singing of zemirot (hymns) in honor of Shabbat, festivals and special occasions. One of these times is Motzaei Shabbat, the evening that follows the Shabbat day. A special meal is eaten at that time, called Melaveh Malkah, “escorting the queen,” as we are seeing off Shabbat and continuing its spirit into the week.

Motzaei Shabbat is essentially a difficult time for the Jew. During Shabbat we enter a world of peace and serenity. We spend a full day in a state of elation and removal from the day-to-day grind of life. On Shabbat, a Jew connects to G‑d and takes a break from the physical and lowly world. All of this must come to an end once Shabbat leaves. Once again the Jew is compelled to go out and deal with the everyday challenges of life, which even in the best of cases is never easy.

The havdalah service and the hymns that follow during the Melaveh Malkah meal are all composed in consciousness of this mood. One of the most well-known hymns has each line in sequence beginning with a letter of the alef-bet and ending with a phrase from our haftarah, “Fear not, My servant Jacob.”

The name Yaakov (Jacob) contains the word akeiv (עקב), which means “a heel.” This name was given to him at birth, when he emerged from his mother’s womb clutching the heel of his older twin, Esau.8 At the time when Jacob was victorious over a heavenly angel, the latter gave him the name Yisrael (Israel), “for you have striven with the Divine and with man, and you have overcome.”9

The lives of our forefathers carry within them the story of their descendants. Within every Jew there is the experience of both Yaakov and Yisrael. In general, this is the difference between Shabbat and the rest of the week.

On Shabbat the Jew is elevated to “be in the company” of G‑d. On that level of reality, all is perfect. The material world that usually constitutes a hindrance to G‑dly pursuit becomes now a part of the perfect symmetry that is G‑d’s creation. It is for this reason that we are instructed to enjoy ourselves physically on Shabbat, in a way that may be somewhat discouraged during the week. Although we may not feel this, we are nonetheless elevated to this state of being.

So on Shabbat, a Jew is “Yisrael”—standing above and beyond the usual trials and tribulations of life here on earth. But then Shabbat comes to an end. Now the Jew has to face the world in the way it is, on its own level of reality. Here he feels like, and deals with, a “heel.” The heel is physically the lowest and quite insensitive part of the body. It is pounded and pressed multiple time each day, yet does not react to this in any way. It definitely does not contain any of the higher features within the person, like the head or the heart. In a similar way, the Jew must deal with the side of his own self and the world around him that is apathetic and indifferent to G‑dliness. This is hard work. Yaakov is referred to here as “Yaakov my servant,” just as a servant must work strenuously for his master.

It is for this reason that we sing and announce after Shabbat, “Fear not, My servant Jacob.” After each Shabbat, the Almighty gives us the full strength and capability to fearlessly go about our mission in this world and to do it with joy. Indeed, the Divine promise is that “all Jews have a share in the world to come.” One way or another, we will get to where we have to. The knowledge that the battle will certainly be won will add a tremendous element of spirit and joy to the battle itself, thus also hastening the ultimate victory.10