The portion of Bechukotai contains one of the two passages in the Torah where prophecies of destruction and exile are laid out. By extension, the haftarah is taken from Jeremiah, known for being the prophet of destruction. But just as the narrative of suffering in our Parshah ends with a note of consolation, so too the book of Jeremiah contains many of the most comforting and uplifting sentences uttered in our history. Unique to this haftarah is that Jeremiah makes a kind of combination of both.

He begins by describing the days of Moshiach, when the nations will admit to the shameful way of life taught to them by their parents. But the Jews do not have to wait till this day: they already know and have been taught the way of G‑d. How then could they just blindly follow this path of falsehood? It seems like it would be only a long exile that would bring the Jews to their senses. The Jews had become seemingly addicted to sin, and so in the end their cities would be plundered by the enemy, and they would be forced to desert their homeland.

Many among the people saw no reason to fear any destruction, since the Jewish state had alliances with some of the great powers of the time, Egypt and Assyria. Jeremiah scolds them for this false sense of security that could falter at any moment (as it did). “Blessed is the person who trusts in G‑d,” says the prophet. (We repeat these words as the final sentence of the Grace After Meals.) Trust in G‑d never falters, and will always pay off.

Although the feelings of the heart are hidden from the human eye, G‑d searches and knows the inner happenings of man. Although it seems at times that the wicked are successful, it is only a question of time before their wrongs become public and their gains are lost. They can be compared to the cuckoo bird, which gathers eggs that do not belong to her, only for the birds to desert her once they realize she is not their mother.

The haftarah ends with a personal prayer, where Jeremiah asks to be healed. The commentaries understand this to mean in both the physical sense—Jeremiah had been beaten by the masses for his harsh words—and spiritually, for his mission was a hurtful and painful one. We use the terminology of this verse (in the plural) each day in the Amidah, when we ask G‑d to heal us.

The temptation towards idol worship

“As they remember their children, [so they remember] their altars and their Asherah-trees, beside leafy trees and upon lofty hills.”

Jeremiah describes here the deep desire and connection that the people felt to the the worship of the various gods. To us, this is something incomprehensible. From the Torah and all the prophets it is evident that not only was idolatry the common culture of the time, but that it had this magnetic draw whereby the worshiper would feel fulfilled and exhilarated by practices that to us seem utterly ridiculous.

In a cryptic but gripping passage, the Talmud1 describes the turning point in Jewish and world history when the temptation for idolatry came to an abrupt halt. It all happened around the time when the Second Temple was inaugurated.

The verse describes that at that time, “they cried with a great voice unto the L‑rd their G‑d.”2 “What did they cry?” the Talmud asks.

“Woe, woe! It is he who has destroyed the Sanctuary, burnt the Temple, killed all the righteous, driven all Israel into exile, and is still dancing around among us!”

(“He” is a reference to the temptation toward idolatry. It was this very sin that caused the destruction of the first temple and the sin was still quite pervasive among the people.)

“You, G‑d, have surely given him to us so that we may receive reward through him [by resisting the temptation]. We want neither him nor the reward through him!”

At that moment, a tablet fell down from heaven for them, on which the word emet (“truth”) was inscribed. [This indicated that G‑d was saying, “I agree with you; you spoke the truth.”] They ordered a fast of three days and three nights, whereupon he (the temptation) was surrendered to them. He came forth from the Holy of Holies like a young fiery lion.

Seeing that their prayers had been answered, the sages decided to try and achieve the eradication of another major temptation that had previously been cause for so much evil: the temptation towards sexual immorality.

They said: “Since this is a time of [Divine] grace, let us pray for mercy that the tempter towards sin3 [be given to our hands].” They prayed for mercy, and he was handed over to them. He [the temptation] said to them: “Realize that if you kill me, the world goes down.” They imprisoned him for three days, then looked in the whole land of Israel for a fresh egg and could not find it.

It seemed that although there is no good in idolatry, there is definitely good in the desire for sexual indulgence. The perpetuation of the human race depends upon it, and so does human food. The people who found themselves with the opportunity to destroy the temptation of flesh-love discovered that when this genius was suspended, no eggs were available. To ask that temptation or the tempter should live, but not tempt in the place of sin, is to ask a thing that Heaven will not grant. By keeping it within lawful limits, domesticity would be promoted over depravity, so that there would be an imbalance towards good over evil.

Thereupon they said: “What shall we do now? Shall we kill him? The world would then go down. Shall we beg for half-mercy? They do not grant ‘halves’ in heaven.” They put out his eyes and let him go. It helped, inasmuch as he no longer entices people to commit incest.

It is fascinating to note that indeed, after this time, we notice a monumental change in the story of the Jewish people: the temptation for idolatry ceases. In its place we find the prevalence of all the temptations we take for granted in our own society: material pleasure, power, sexual immorality, etc.

Another idea that emerges from this Talmudic passage is that to the sages, the temptation for idolatry and the temptation for sexual immorality are similar in nature. Both are in and of themselves incomprehensible, if not for being—at least at the time—part of human nature and culture. Indeed, the Talmud elsewhere4 affirms that the sexual desire (in particular of a man towards a woman) is in itself ridiculous, and it is only there “by the decree of the king (G‑d).”

In light of all this, the following statement in the Talmud, appearing right before the passage above, becomes incredibly important:

Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: The Jews knew that idol worship had no substance; they served idols only so as to permit themselves to engage openly in forbidden relationships.

The idea was, as Rashi explains, that as Jews they were barred from indulging in this most intense human desire. To them, the solution to this problem was simple: Quit being Jewish! If the entire basis for the Torah is the belief and worship of G‑d, then if we find a way of disregarding that, we can no longer be rebuked for such activities.

The talmud seems startled at this suggestion of Rav Yehudah. It presents many arguments to the contrary. The first one is from the above verse in our haftarah, where the prophet describes the deep connection the people felt to their idolatrous ways. Another difficulty comes from the above account of the destruction of this temptation, which indicates that this was a strong temptation in and of itself. The Talmud rebuts all these questions by explaining that this deep connection to idolatry came after the fact. At the outset, the Jews were fully aware of the fallacy that lay in such worship. It was only once they had crossed the line of idolatry that they became attached to this unfortunate way of life.

The lessons of history that can be taken from the above are both obvious and profound:

Jewish history is not unfamiliar with the many doctrines of deviation from Torah that have been promulgated over the ages. Often, however, what lies deep beneath these belief systems is the the desire for a life with less responsibility. “Bribery makes the eyes of the wise blind,”5 warns the Torah. A person must be able to honestly seek the truth, even if this means sacrificing momentary comfort and leisure because of it. Ultimately, the sacrifice is very minute in comparison with the joy and fulfillment that come with living a life of truth.