The opening verses of the haftarah are typical of the many occasions when the prophets rebuke the people with regard to the sacrifices. Our Parshah, like the previous one, is entirely preoccupied with the laws and accounts of the various sacrifices. In the haftarah, the prophet admonishes the people who, while possibly observing the command itself, were taking it totally out of its desired context.

Of the various sacrifices prescribed in the Torah, the olah offering was one that was totally burned on the altar. Jeremiah begins by saying to the people that it would be a shame for them to burn meat which they could have eaten. If G‑d was not accepting their sacrifices anyway, then why waste a good animal?

It seems that the people at the time had altogether missed the point. G‑d had a unique intention in the creation of the Jewish people, and had given them comprehensive instructions of how to put their destiny into motion. But the people seemed to know better. Even after the various prophets were sent to them, they still stubbornly stuck to their ways. G‑d even tells Jeremiah that as a prophet he too can make the attempt, but it will be to no avail. It will be as if he is talking to a people who had never even heard of the ethic he was trying to preach, so far had they drifted away from it.

So, to conclude the reading on a more positive note, a passage from a later chapter in Jeremiah is added at the end. Speaking in the name of G‑d, Jeremiah reminds the people not to take pride in material wealth, wisdom or strength. There is but one thing that will give reason for true pride: when one possesses the fortitude of truly discerning and knowing G‑d; when one knows that G‑d will do both justice and kindness, for this is His will.

No, I didn’t say that

“For neither did I speak with your forefathers, nor did I command them, on the day I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning a burnt offering or a sacrifice.”

This statement by Jeremiah seems rather strange. Had G‑d not commanded the Jews in the wilderness to bring sacrifices? Why, the Torah is full of such commandments!

Rashi, among others, explains that the emphasis is to be placed on the latter part of the verse. The goal of the redemption from Egypt was, as G‑d stated before the giving of the Torah, for the Jews to “hearken well to Me and observe My covenant,” and thereby become “the most beloved treasure of all peoples.” Bringing sacrifices constitutes but one group (although an important one) among the many mitzvot. Focusing on these mitzvot while ignoring the Torah principles from which they derive actually defeats their purpose.

Radak adds to this by noting that in the Ten Commandments, the mitzvot that encapsulate the entire body of Torah law and ethic, there was no mention of any sacrifices. (This, then, is the meaning of the phrase “on the day”—i.e., in the immediate aftermath of when—“I brought them out of the land of Egypt.”) Sacrifices were not the first thing G‑d instructed the Jews to do.

Other commentaries explain that this “non-commandment” to bring sacrifices refers to the fact that the Torah makes very few requirements on a private individual to bring sacrifices altogether: aside from the sacrifices on the festivals, a person is generally obligated to bring a private sacrifice only if he or she sinned. By contrast, the Torah has an entire gamut of mitzvot that are obligatory on the individual, both “mitzvot between man and G‑d” and “mitzvot between man and his fellow.” Here again, in the spirit of the surrounding cultures, the Jews had taken a part of the Torah and set it up as the fundamental religious obligation and source of merit, thereby ignoring what the Torah had been all about in the first place.

(It is worth noting that this phenomenon—with Jewish values other than sacrifices—has been all too common throughout Jewish history, down to contemporary times. Time and again there arise cultures and “isms” within the Jewish people that make this very same mistake: the elevation and centralization of a particular Torah idea, true in and of itself, but making it their entire focus. This automatically creates a disregard, on one level or another, for all the rest. This problem is as dangerous as it is common: since such a philosophy does not propose a rejection of Torah—on the contrary, it claims to be the bearers of it—it can easily lure the masses to something which, as seen time and again, will ultimately always go far astray from any semblance of our heritage. The Torah must be taken as a whole, and must be studied and practiced within the context that has been guarded and cherished by our people to this very day.)

Got to be wise, rich, and strong

The final words of the haftarah contain an injunction which resonates as the classic Torah perspective: Let man not glory in his wisdom, strength or wealth. The Talmud and most of the biblical commentaries understand this verse as being a reminder that none of these gifts are of definite value. No money, wisdom or strength will do any good for the person, if G‑d has decreed his or her fate otherwise. The Talmud illustrates this with a less drastic example from the days of the Temple:

“Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel taught: The Siloam1 used to gush forth through an opening the size of an issar.2 The king commanded that it be widened so that its waters be increased, but the waters diminished. Thereupon it was narrowed again, whereupon it regained its original flow. All this was to demonstrate that which was said: ‘Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might.’”3

The construction of the First Temple was done by the direct word of G‑d. Hence, the “wisdom” of attempting to upgrade it was met with failure.4 What seems to be clear is that any earthly advantages amount to nothing when it comes to our dealings with G‑d.

In light of this, there are a number of teachings in our sources that seem very puzzling. It seems from these passages that such material qualities not only enhance G‑dly pursuits, but may actually be prerequisites to them! One such passage is with regard to prophecy:

“Rabbi Yochanan said: The Holy One, blessed be He, rests His Divine Presence only upon one who is mighty, wealthy, wise and humble.”5

The commentaries to this passage explain that since the prophet would need to be respected by and adhered to by the people, it was necessary for him to possess those qualities that gain respect in the eyes of the masses.6 A similar law is stated with regard to the high priest, the man embodying the highest form of Divine service on behalf of the entire people:

“It has been taught: The verse ‘The priest who is highest among his brethren’ implies that he must be highest among his brethren in beauty, in wisdom and in wealth.”7 The Talmud goes so far as to say that if the high priest lacks in wealth, it is the obligation of his fellow kohanim to make sure that he be made wealthy! Similar passages can be found with regard to the righteous and the Torah sage.8

All in all, what emerges is that it really depends on what meaning the riches, strength and wisdom have in first place. True that in and of themselves they add nothing, and can be a distraction, to Divine service. But if they are not viewed in an isolated manner, but rather only as part of ”discerning and knowing G‑d,” then on the contrary, they become part and parcel of that which a person ought to “glory” with—namely, the pursuit of G‑d and His workings. In this vein, they actually become true virtues, for G‑dliness is now enhanced as a result of their presence.9