The portion of Behar is largely dedicated to the laws of buying and selling property in the Land of Israel. The haftarah tells a story of when the acquisition of property in the Holy Land became a G‑d-given symbol of hope at a very bleak time.

The story begins at the time when the Babylonian army was laying a heavy siege against Jerusalem, threatening to penetrate the city at any moment. Inside the city the prophet Jeremiah was warning King Tzidkiyahu that due to the people’s sins, the conquest and destruction of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple was imminent.

To make matters worse, Tzidkiyahu became angry and incensed by Jeremiah’s ominous warnings. He decided to throw the prophet into jail so that his terrible prophecies should not be heard in public. While incarcerated, Jeremiah received a peculiar instruction from On High, one which seemed to run counter to everything he had been told till now.

Jeremiah had a cousin named Chanamel. This Chanamel, he was told, was going to come and visit him in prison, and would offer to sell him a field in the city of Anatot. As was the custom at the time, it was always preferable that a relative of the seller should buy a property, thus ensuring that the land remained within the family.

Sure enough, Chanamel arrived and made this exact offer to his cousin. It was more than obvious to Jeremiah that he was supposed to follow through with the purchase. What was terribly perplexing, though, was the fact that he had been told—clearly and unequivocally—that the Jewish sovereignty of the region was about to collapse, and that the land would fall into the hands of the Chaldeans. Hardly an ideal time to purchase property in Judea! But evidently, this was precisely the will of G‑d. Chanamel himself had also received the Divine instruction to propose this sale to his cousin. Obviously, they were to disregard the strange nature of such a sale.

So Jeremiah agreed. A contract was written, witnesses were brought, and the silver was weighed in front of them. An additional document affirming the validity of the sale was issued as a property title. After completing the sale, Jeremiah gave the legally consummated documents to his faithful student, Baruch ben Neriah. All the Jewish inmates of the prison were asked to gather and bear witness to this event. Handing the documents to Baruch, Jeremiah declared:

Thus said the L‑rd, Master of Legions, G‑d of Israel: Take these documents… and place them in an earthenware vessel, so that they will endure for many years. For thus said the L‑rd…: Houses, fields and vineyards will yet be bought in this land.

There seems to be a point of difference among the commentaries as to whether or not Jeremiah received a direct communication from G‑d to utter these words. What is indisputable, though, is that Jeremiah clearly understood the intent behind the strange direction from On High. It was similar to many other actions the prophets were commanded to do, so as to manifest and “anchor” their prophecy in a physical action. Either way, as we shall see soon, G‑d fully affirmed this interpretation of Jeremiah’s.

After the episode, Jeremiah turns to G‑d and begins to pray. Radak explains that the motivation for the prayer was this sudden and radical change of tone in the Divine communication. G‑d obviously knew that this purchase would be entirely worthless, in view of the imminent exile. Why then would G‑d instruct him to waste his money like that? It must be, thought Jeremiah, that G‑d was hinting that there is still hope. In his prayer the prophet invokes various examples of G‑dly kindness and benevolence, with the hope that these would be put to work in averting the terrible decree.

A Prayer From Prison

The prophet begins by speaking of G‑d as the creator of heaven and earth. Nothing is concealed from G‑d. This being the case, was it not clear to Him that the city was about to fall into enemy hands?

The ways of G‑d are just. He repays each person according to his or her deeds. But G‑d will also do kindness to the descendants of the righteous, even up to two thousand generation later. There was still hope.

G‑d had performed miracles in Egypt and at the Exodus, and He had brought the people of Israel to the land that flows with milk and honey.1 But alas, the Jews had disobeyed G‑d and strayed from His Torah. Now tragedy was looming. The Chaldeans had already built large ramps that would allow them to surmount the city walls. Pestilence and hunger were driving the defenders to the point of surrender. The last thing on any sane mind would be to start purchasing property now, when at any moment it would be plundered by the enemy. What was this all about?

As explained, although Jeremiah himself had actually already stated what the point of purchasing the field was, he was hopeful that the instruction bore some hopeful news for the present situation as well. He was testing the waters.

The G‑dly response basically affirmed Jeremiah’s original words in the name of G‑d. Indeed, the instruction to buy the land sprang from the recognition that the city was about to fall. Specifically because of this, G‑d instructed the prophet to buy the land in the first place, for this would serve as a strong gesture of comfort and strength: the exile would not be eternal, and the Jews would yet buy fields and vineyards in the Holy Land.

To Say, or Not to Say

One of the verses in Jeremiah’s prayer replicates the descriptions of G‑d’s greatness that we say each day in the Amidah prayer. Replicates—but not quite so: there is a word missing.

The words we use in the Amidah were coined by Moses: G‑d is “great, mighty and awesome.”2 In Jeremiah’s prayer, however, while stating that G‑d is “great and mighty,” he overtly omits the word “awesome.” In one riveting passage, the Talmud analyzes this omission:

Moses came and said: “The great, the mighty and the awesome G‑d.” But [later,] Jeremiah the prophet came and said: “Gentiles are carousing in His sanctuary; where is His awesomeness!?” Therefore he did not say “awesome” in his prayer.

Foreseeing the terrible destruction, the prophet could not bring himself to utter a description of G‑d as “awesome.” He was not the only one at that time who experienced such a crisis:

Daniel came and said: “Gentiles are enslaving His children; where is His might?” Therefore he did not say “mighty” in his prayer.3

We must remember that this time, the years before and after the destruction of the First Temple, was one of immense spiritual instability for our entire people. It was as if everything had come to an end. The entire project, starting with the exodus from Egypt, seemed to have gone up in the smoke that destroyed the Jewish land and dispersed its people. It seemed like it was all over.

The convention of sages at this time, the Anshei Knesset Hagedolah (Men of the Great Assembly), had the incredible task of reconstituting the mission, hope and destiny of the Jewish people. It was now the calling of the Jew to see and reveal G‑dliness within the exile and, precisely through his effort in the most difficult of times, to bring this exile to an end.

The Anshei Knesset Hagedolah chose to include all three of these descriptive terms in the daily prayer for all generations to come. The righteous prophets omitted these titles, since they could not truthfully utter them in face of such calamity. Including them once again in the canonized prayer text was symbolic of the spiritual victory the Anshei Knesset Hagedolah won with their redemption of spirit in the midst of bodily exile. This, says the Talmud, was magnificent. Actually, it was this decisive move that earned this convention of sages the illustrious name by which they are known:

R. Yehoshua ben Levi said: Why are the sages of those generations called the “Members of the Great Assembly”? It is because they returned the crown of the Holy One, Blessed be He, to its former glory.

They came and said: On the contrary [to Jeremiah and Daniel], this is His might—that He conquers His inclination by exercising patience toward the wicked. And these acts also express His awesomeness: Were it not for the awesomeness of the Holy One, Blessed be He, how could one people, who are alone and hated by the gentile nations, survive among them?4

It was a paradigm shift, a turnaround of perspective. The infinite love and connection of the Jew to his G‑d had emerged triumphant once again. The Jew had wrestled with the angel of despair—and won.