The haftarah for this week is the second in the series of three haftarot read during the period between the seventeenth of Tammuz and the ninth of Av. In it Jeremiah rebukes the Jews for their actions, which would eventually bring upon them the destruction of the Temple and the Jewish exile.

The people had forsaken G‑d, and instead directed their devotion to the vanities of idolatry and all that accompanied it. The leaders of the people either remained silent or followed this shameful lifestyle themselves. The trend did not seem like it would be bucked any time soon. If generations to come would continue in this way, they would have to bear the burden of the consequences.

Israel had fallen from grace even by the standards of the pagan nations around them. In their history, these nations had not traded away their traditions or deserted they ways of their forefathers. Even though the deities they worshipped were ridiculous in nature, the people still possessed the commitment to uphold what had been handed down to them by their ancestors. In contrast, Israel had doubly fallen: they had forsaken the true G‑d, and moreover traded Him for falsehood and vanity.

The looming destruction would bring with it shock and disbelief. Were these the people who known as children to G‑d? They would seem more like the child of a slave at that point. How could G‑d allow such tragedy to befall them? In truth, though, the people had brought it upon themselves. They had been guided in the paths of truth, but they had chosen to stray. Laying their trust in other gods, or other allies of all sorts, had evidently not brought them much good after all.

The prophet castigates the people, saying, “Even if you wash with niter and use much soap, your iniquity is stained before Me, says the L‑rd G‑d.” Now, the intent cannot possibly be that there was no hope left for the people; after all, Jeremiah repeatedly encourages them to mend their ways and thus evade calamity. The talmud and the commentaries therefore seek to understand the meaning of these words. Abarbanel offers the following explanation: the thorough washing of the body is analogous to an external and superficial return to G‑d. Just as a shiningly clean body says nothing about its internal health, so too do mere acts of kindness not actually state anything about the actual spiritual situation of the person. All can look very well on the outside, but if the person is internally rotten, it is only a matter of time until the external layer will fade away as well. A real change had to occur.

Jeremiah further compares the people to a wild donkey who runs in the wilderness. She is uncontainable, and those who wish to catch her do not even attempt it. Her time, though, will also come—when she is in her final month of gestation. At this time she is incapable of swiftly running, and can be easily caught. By the same token, the Jewish people may live a life of frivolousness and superficial freedom, but the time of reckoning will quickly come. The “month” referred to here is an allusion to the month of Av, which contains the day when both Temples were destroyed and many other calamities befell the Jewish people.

The reading is closed with the guarantee that with teshuvah, the Jews will avoid any adversity and will return to their former glory. Their commitment (or “oath”) will be solely to G‑d, and they will serve as a pride and a blessing to the nations around them.

Double evil

As with every aspect of Judaism, the Temple and its destruction are mirrored spiritually in the relationship between the Jew and his Maker. The physical Temple was a place where G‑dliness was present in its fullest sense—a place of G‑d’s “dwelling.” Similarly, a Jew is enjoined to build a “Temple” within himself by enabling G‑dliness to be alive and real in his or her life. The destruction of the physical Temple is spiritually reflected in the destruction of G‑dly feeling and sensitivity within the Jewish person.

This idea expresses itself especially with regard to the study of Torah. Our sages tell us: “From the day that the Temple was destroyed, there is nothing that the Holy One, blessed be He, has in this world other that the ‘four cubits’ (the space) of halachah (Torah law).”1 Devotion to Torah is the litmus test of one’s spiritual situation. A Jew should naturally take pleasure and enjoyment in learning Torah. The fact that he connects with and absorbs G‑dliness by learning Torah should be enough to excite him, regardless of the subject matter he is studying. The lack of this warmth and excitement is a state of spiritual exile and destruction.

There is an additional dimension in this, which can be found in a verse of this haftarah: “For My people have committed two evils; they have forsaken Me, the spring of living waters, to dig for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns that do not hold water.” In the spiritual sense, G‑d is expressing His grief over the fact that not only has the Jew forsaken the learning of Torah, but moreover he has turned to seeking out other wisdoms and disciplines.

The Jewish attitude towards the various sciences and philosophies is that they are a means to an end. These wisdoms can be studied in order to make an adequate living, to improve the world, or for the purpose of understanding Torah or enhancing the performance of a mitzvah, but the life and soul of a Jew must not be vested in the quest for this sort of knowledge for its own sake. They can be a tool, a means with which to achieve a holy goal; but they are not the goal in itself. For a Jew, the pursuit of knowledge other than Torah for its own sake not only constitutes a distraction from his mission, but it also has a profoundly negative effect in desensitizing and contaminating his ability of perception of G‑dly wisdom.2

When the evil inclination grips a person, the first result is that he is estranged from this warmth to Torah study. After this has been achieved, the person often slides further and develops a desire to become accomplished in other knowledges and disciplines—this for their own sake. This is often done with the assumption that by doing this he will find meaning and inner wholesomeness, at least on a level that will satisfy his most basic physical self.

The statement in the verse is that this is doubly tragic. Not only do these “cisterns” not contain water, but they will lose even the water that may be brought in there from elsewhere. In the analogue, Torah is compared to water.3 Only the Torah has the capability of quenching the inner thirst of a Jew. Deserting Torah by delving into a foreign intellectual world will not only not provide peace for the Jew, it will only furthermore frustrate him when he ultimately does not find meaning in this pursuit after all. But it goes further than this. Not only are these “cisterns” useless on their own, they are also counterproductive, for they will cause the loss of any water brought to them: submergence in worldly knowledge coarsens the mind so that it is incapable of properly absorbing Torah.

Soon after the 9th of Av, the day of the Temple’s destruction, the holiday of the 15th of Av is celebrated. The many positive occurrences that historically happened on this day are all outgrowths of its fundamental concept: it is the day that represents an ascent after the descent of destruction. The Talmud states that the 15th of Av also heralds the end of the hot summer days, and that from then on the nights begin to get longer. Traditionally, the hours of the night and early morning are the optimal times for Torah study. During the daytime, mundane affairs and business must be attended to; the nighttime offers the quiet and tranquility necessary for devotion to Torah. The 15th of Av therefore brings with it the opportunity to devote more time to Torah learning.

This is obviously not coincidental. Just as the spiritual destruction begins with estrangement from Torah, so does spiritual liberation and redemption come through devotion to Torah learning. In the beginning this may take self-discipline, but in the end the Torah will break through all boundaries and elevate the person to a higher plane than ever before.4