This week’s haftarah begins a series of three haftarot known in halachic literature as telata depur’anuta, “the three (haftarot) of retribution.” We read these haftarot during the three-week period between the seventeenth of Tammuz and the ninth of Av—the time when we mourn the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jewish people. These readings are taken from three passages where the prophets warn the Jews of the looming destruction and the terrible suffering that will follow, and implore the people to mend their ways and avoid this tragedy.

The first of these haftarot is taken from the opening chapter of Jeremiah. Jeremiah lived through the destruction, and was its primary prophet.

Meet Jeremiah

The opening verses of the reading give us some background about its major figure. Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) the son of Chilkiah was a kohen who lived in the territory of Benjamin. On his father’s side he descended from Evyatar, the high priest who served in the days of King David. King Solomon, the son of David, had banished Evyatar to the territory of Benjamin due to his disloyalty in supporting Solomon’s brother Adoniyahu (Adonijah) in his attempt at the throne.1 The family had lived there for over three centuries since then.

In addition to this, Jeremiah also descended from Rahab. Rahab was the woman who hosted and saved the spies sent by Joshua to scout the city of Jericho just before its miraculous fall into Israelite hands. Our sages tell us that Rahab later converted and became the wife of none other than Joshua himself. Before the spies visited her, the verse describes Rahab as a zonah—literally translated as “a prostitute.”2 In their quest to belittle Jeremiah, the people would use this ancestor of his as a pretext for ridicule. Rashi in his commentary to this verse quotes the words of our sages, who said about this: “Jeremiah was a descendant of one who had a rotten past but later mended her ways. It was fitting for him to come and rebuke the Jews, who came from good descent but who had now gone in rotten ways.”

The hesitation

The first live encounter we have with Jeremiah is his great reluctance to assume the position he was destined to take on. The narrative begins with the Almighty letting Jeremiah in on the fact that he had been designated and sanctified for this role even before his mother conceived him.

Rashi takes this to refer to the teaching of the sages that G‑d showed Adam, the first man, all the leaders who were to lead each generation of the Jewish people. Why is this stressed especially with regard to Jeremiah? Radak, in his commentary, suggests that not only was Jeremiah destined for greatness by his creator, but that his parents also had an active role in his “sanctity before conception”: “This comes to teach us that his father and mother took care to be in a state of holiness and purity at the time of conception, so that the prophet would be sanctified.”3

Jeremiah, however, knowing well the difficulty that lay ahead of him, was extremely hesitant: "Alas . . . Behold, I know not to speak, for I am a youth.” In addition to literally being young, Jeremiah was indicating that he was still “young” in his experience with the people. He used the example of Moses, who had also rebuked the people, but had done so only at the end of his life. After doing so much for them and performing so many miracles, he was indeed in a position to rebuke his people. But here Jeremiah was called to do this right at the outset.4

G‑d reassures Jeremiah that he had nothing to fear. The places where he would need to go and the words he would speak there were not going to be of his own after all. His mission would be tough, and sometimes dangerous, but he was not acting alone: he was an agent of G‑d. His mission would not be easy, but G‑d would give him fortress-like resilience, and no harm would befall him.

Almond branch and boiling pot

The next part of the reading records two scenes that seem to be the beginning of Jeremiah’s visions. The first was of an almond branch. The Hebrew word for an almond is shaked. The same word in Hebrew (שקד) also serves as the root for “diligence” or “haste,” and this name is given to the almond and its tree due to its “haste” in the process of producing fruit. G‑d was conveying Jeremiah that what He was soon to tell him was going to take place imminently.

Rashi, quoting a midrashic source, explains that the almond actually served as a precise point of reference. It takes three weeks from the time the almond tree buds till the almond ripens. In a similar way, it would take three weeks from the time Jerusalem succumbed to the siege (on the 17th of Tammuz) to when the Temple would be set on fire (the 9th of Av)—hence the observance of the “Three Weeks.”

The second vision was of a boiling pot whose froth was mainly on its northern side. The message was that the evil would come upon Israel from a country to its north—namely Babylon.

Abarbanel makes note of the wording in this verse, “The evil will open up from the north.” He understand this to imply that the evil will both “open” from the north and also culminate from there. Babylon is to the northeast of Israel, and Rome is northwest of it. It was Babylon who began the Jewish exile with the destruction of the first Temple, and Rome who, five hundred years later, brought the exile full circle with the destruction of the second Temple.

Final words of love

Although the haftarot of the Three Weeks can read as rather harsh and gloomy, they each finish with magnificent words of hope, strength and love to the Jewish people.

In a verse that we use in the prayers of Rosh Hashanah, the Almighty invokes the memory of the “early youth” of the Jewish people. At the time of the exodus from Egypt they were like a young bride, filled to the brim and overflowing with love and passion for G‑d. They displayed this with their unbounded faith as they ventured out into the barren desert with nothing other than their faith as a provision. Traveling into such a place with no knowledge of how they would survive defied any rational calculation. But this was no deterrent. They plunged in with hearts filled with love and joy, casting their lot entirely with their creator.

This is the true and pure nature of the Jew. For this they are a truly holy nation. The verse compares the status of the Jew to the status of terumah, the part of the crop that was given to the kohen. This portion was to be eaten exclusively by the kohen and his family, and had to be consumed in a state of purity. It is forbidden for a non-kohen to partake of terumah, and the Torah provides strong consequences for this transgression. The Jewish people are thus compared to terumah in the sense that any foreign people who would “consume” them will ultimately pay dearly for this misdeed.