All growth comes through discomfort. Sometimes we find ourselves troubled by a nagging, nameless concern that feels like a pebble in our shoe. It doesn’t cause great harm but irritates with each step until finally we must stop to remove it. Discomfort alerts us to the fact that something is wrong. When we face situations of moral ambiguity or emotional turbulence, we have to pay close attention to our discomfort: we often extract solutions and grow as human beings in understanding pain.
The haftara of Parashat Masei ( Jeremiah 2:4–28, 3:4), read in this season, is filled with God’s charges against the children of Israel: accusations of betrayal, neglect and idol worship. One of the main themes undergirding God’s anger is that the people have abandoned the One who can help them, and turned to idols that are useless and can provide no sustenance. This theme appears in several guises throughout these chapters, offering a “pebble-in-the-shoe” way to signal growth through discomfort.
Jeremiah 2 is filled with rhetorical questions of rebuke directed to the children of Israel, opening with God’s pained “What wrong did your fathers find in Me that they abandoned Me and went after delusion and were deluded?”( Jeremiah 2:5). This question may represent an honest introspective search on God’s part to figure out what has gone wrong in His relationship with the Israelites. More likely, it is a question posed to sound reflective, but is really an accusation, laying on guilt. This reading is underscored by the later questions scattered throughout the chapter:
“They never ask themselves, ‘Where is the Lord, who brought us out of the land of Egypt?’ ” (verse 6)
“The priests never asked themselves, ‘Where is the Lord?’” (verse 8)
“Has any nation changed its gods even though they are nongods?” ( verse 11)
“Is Israel a bondman? Is he a homeborn slave? Then why is he given over to plunder?” (verse 14)
“What then is the good of your going to Egypt to drink the waters of the Nile?” (verse 18)
“How can you say, ‘I am not defiled…’?” ( verse 23)
“Where are those gods you made for yourself?” ( verse 28)
But for those obstinate questionings
Of sense and outward things,
Fallings from us, vanishings;
Blank misgivings of a Creature
Moving about in worlds not realized,
High instincts before which our mortal Nature
Did tremble like a guilty Thing surprised.