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)
This onslaught of questions presents an exhaustive flow. Alone, each could stimulate discussion. Grouped together – some appearing one right after the other – they are a barrage of criticism, serving as a metaphorical kick in the stomach. Winded, the children of Israel make no reply; there is rarely a good answer to a rhetorical question, let alone multiple ones. The interrogation forces the Israelites into a mental corner from which they have no choice but to examine themselves. An answer to one question alone does not satisfy the Questioner.
The poet, William Wordsworth, portrays the confused state of one who is constantly questioned:
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.
Questions trap us. In our mortal, limited state, we are surprised and stunned to be caught. Continual questioning forces us to look inside.
Our text reminds us that this is a time of inner misgivings about commitments and our role in relationships. It is a time to review Jewish history and our enduring spiritual bonds to God. It is a time to question ourselves.
Kavana for the Day What is the most important question you have right now? Write it down. Stare at the words. How are you going to answer that question? What is getting in the way of an answer?
From In The Narrow Places, for 7 Av