A 1512 fresco of the prophet Jeremiah by Michelangelo at the Sistine Chapel in Rome.
Tomorrow, synagogues across the world will read the opening chapters of the book of Exodus, but will follow it with different supplemental readings from the Prophets. Ashkenazim will read a passage from Isaiah, condemning sin but also promising redemption. For their part, Sephardim will read the opening chapter of Jeremiah, which begins thus:
The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiyahu
Of the priests at Anatot in the land of Benjamin
Whom the Lord spoke to in the days of Josiah son of Amon, king of Judea,
In the thirteenth year of his reign.
And also in the days of Joachim son of Josiah, king of Judea
Until the end of the eleventh year of Zedekiah son of Josiah, king of Judea,
When Jerusalem was exiled, in the fifth month.
This introduction sets out the character and even the plot of the book of Jeremiah: it is a catalogue of people who did not listen to this prophet, with the end result being the exile of the entire community from Jerusalem. If other prophets have their highs and lows, Jeremiah has been appointed to preside over a funeral procession.
Why does the Sephardi rite juxtapose this passage with the Torah reading that introduces Moses? Because Moses and Jeremiah are bookends, as it were, to the Jews’ first experience with statehood. The Lord chooses Moses to inaugurate Jewish national independence. Jeremiah—after a long line of prophets whose words are sometimes heeded and sometimes unheeded—comes to oversee its collapse.
In previous columns in Mosaic I’ve compared Moses’ character with that of Joseph, who led the Jews into Egypt. Now it seems no less instructive to compare Moses’ character with that of Jeremiah, who did not exactly lead but rather followed the Jews into exile after they continually failed to heed his warnings.
Jeremiah’s familial connections among the priests in Anatot provide a first clue to how he is like but also unlike Moses. When we first meet Moses, he is introduced as the son of a Levite. Indeed, the Levites will become the core of the theocracy Moses is sent to bring into being, and his Levite brother Aaron will become the first high priest. The Levites, moreover, are the ones who will rally around Moses when the rest of the people commit the ultimate sin of the Golden Calf. In short, Moses’ tribal relations are the backbone of his operation.
Jeremiah also comes from that same priestly stock—and he’s not just any Levite but a descendant of Aaron himself. Yet his elite relatives come to hate both him and his mission so much that they not only decline to fall into place around him but threaten to kill him if he does not stop prophesying (Jeremiah 11:21). So Jeremiah is like Moses in coming from the ruling class, but unlike Moses in having been appointed not to co-opt that class but to dismiss it:
And the word of the Lord to me came to say:
“Before I formed you in the belly
I knew you
And before you left the womb
I set you apart;
A prophet to the nations I made you.”
For the Lord, this is going to be a period of housekeeping. He intends to make His will known not just to His chosen people, with whom He has a large bone to pick, but also to the neighboring nations, whom He will use as instruments of torture to cut the kingdom of Israel down to size and start over. To say the least, this is a very different relationship to Gentile kings from the one Moses has with Pharaoh, who in Exodus is the one being cut down to size.
Jeremiah, like Moses, initially resists his mission, but again the differences are instructive:
But I said, “Ah milord God—
Look, I don’t know how to talk
Because I’m a kid.”
But the Lord said to me,
“Do not say ‘I’m a kid’
Because wherever I send you, you’ll go
And all I command you, you’ll say.
Don’t be afraid of them
Because I am with you to save you,
Moses’ excuse is that he’s “heavy of tongue,” a permanent characteristic that disqualifies him as a public speaker. But Jeremiah offers a different excuse: he does not know how to speak because he is still a na’ar—literally a youth, but also the same word used of Saul when he tried to refuse the kingship at the age of thirty-three.
In other words, the issue is not chronological age but social standing. Moses, after all, grew up in the royal palace, and the Lord tries to accommodate his speech impediment by allowing him to use Aaron as a spokesman. In marked contrast, He has no patience for Jeremiah’s social anxiety. Persuasion will not be a part of his job description, and anyway the Lord doesn’t require him to be socially at ease. Quite the opposite:
But God reached His hand and touched my mouth
And the Lord spoke to me: “Look,
I put my words into your mouth.
See, I set you today over nations
And over kingdoms
To root out and smash
And wipe out and destroy,
To build and to plant.”
Moses, whose mouth stays in its natural state, is offered tools as substitutes for speech: a magic staff, a leprosy trick, and so forth. But Jeremiah experiences an infinite Being without body who appears to reach out with His hand and actually make physical contact with his lips and then—as if talking to a child after pulling a sweet from behind his ear—says, “Don’t worry, son, I just put lots of smart stuff under your tongue.” Only it isn’t candy but truths so bitter that his kinsmen would rather kill him than listen to him.
In these opening lines, what the Lord tells Jeremiah makes him again Moses’ opposite. His prophesying will not be about redemption and deliverance, about bringing a great nation into being, but about destruction: everything will be turned to dust and only then, almost as an afterthought, will a new crop be planted. It is as if, in Moses’ case, his mission had been reduced just to killing off the generation in the desert without bringing the next generation into the Promised Land.
But the Lord’s word to me said:
“What do you see Jeremiah?
And I said, I see an almond staff.”
And the Lord said to me, “You’ve seen well.
I’m always quick at doing what I said.”
Every prophet sees the Lord and hears His voice in his own particular way. To Jeremiah, uniquely, the Lord is almost reminiscent of the Joker, inciting havoc on the great city of Gotham while cracking jokes. He asks Jeremiah what he sees. Jeremiah comes back with a metaphor, but the Lord dismisses it with a pun. Instead of the shaked, almond, He suggests that Jeremiah should be astute enough to see that the Lord is shoked, always an early bird to do what He said He’d do.
But the Lord’s word to me a second time was:
“What do you see?”
And I said, “A steaming pot I see
And its spout facing from the north.”
And the Lord said to me, “From the north will steam
The trouble over all who live in the land.
For here I call all the royal families of the north, God’s word,
And they’ll come and set each man his throne
At the gates of Jerusalem and on all its battlements
Around and on all the cities of Judea,
But I’ll speak my sentences on them for all their wickedness
Who abandoned me and burned incense for other gods
And bowed down to what their own hands made.”
This second time, the Lord stops kidding around. The vision is of an invasion from the north and of all the warring hosts the Lord will bring down on Jerusalem. Why? The usual reason: the inhabitants have been indulging in idol worship. But now the cost to be exacted is especially steep. Usually it is a given idol worshipper, or king, or city that is slated for punishment, and a prophet’s warning can have some effect. But not this time. Nobody has listened, and the Lord is in no mood for compromise.
The heartbreaking thing is that late in the book, when the Lord does seem moved to compromise and suggests that the people could yet be saved, they still won’t listen and nobody is ever saved. If Moses has been equipped with various magic tricks to ensure the people’s attention, here the Lord knows pretty much in advance that such special effects won’t work; the rot has gone too far.
“But you, tighten your belt
And get up and say to them
Everything that I Myself command.
Have no fear of them lest I poke you before them.
But I here set you today
As a fortress city
And an iron pillar
And as walls of brass over all the country
Of the kings of Judea and its ministers
And its priests and the scum of the earth.”
The nub of the book is in this exchange. The Lord engages in a little more wordplay, riffing on the similarities between the Hebrew teḥat (have no fear) and aḥitkha (I will poke you, like a fire), but the basic job description in this passage is straightforward enough. Unlike Moses, who founded a theocracy, Jeremiah is going to replace a system of religious worship by becoming himself what Jerusalem used to be. In place of a capital city with walls and kings and an ark and pillars, there will be one man whose virtue will outweigh the deficiencies of the entire social order.
“They’ll fight you and not be fit for you
Because I’m with you,
To deliver you.”
Then the Lord’s word to me was to say:
“Walk around and holler in the ears of Jerusalem,
‘So says the Lord:
I remember you for your youthful kindnesses,
Your honeymoon love when you walked after me
In the desert in a land not fit for planting:
Israel is set aside for the Lord,
The first of its produce,
All who eat it will be guilty,
Trouble will come upon them, God’s word.’”
In this prophetic encounter with the Lord, there is an astounding change of tone and something Moses never experiences—because when Moses comes along, the Lord has had no history with the Jewish people, only a fondness for Abraham and his descendants. But now, after promising Jeremiah that He won’t let any of the scoundrels lay a hand on him, the Lord is suddenly struck by an attack of nostalgia, like a husband hiring a divorce attorney who suddenly remembers his wedding day and takes out the photos for a long last look.
Moreover, Jeremiah is vouchsafed a reminder of his specific priestly privileges. The first fruits of the land, mentioned in the final verse above, enjoyed a special sacred status and were to be given as donations to priests, like Jeremiah himself; commoners were forbidden to eat them. Jeremiah is thus special. And the land, too, is special. The Lord may use other nations to punish the Jews, but He will not allow the land to lose its specialness. And just as a commoner who ate of the first fruits was in violation of biblical law, those nations who attempt to consume Israel have likewise incurred guilt in the eyes of God.
Still, despite the Lord’s promise of a restoration, Jeremiah would not live to see it. Moses may have had to gaze out over the Promised Land from the desert, but he knew it was there and that the children he had raised would be crossing the Jordan safe in the hands of his handpicked successor Joshua. Jeremiah gets none of that. He watches his whole world order come tumbling down and has only the Lord’s promise that in 70 years it will all be restored and Babylon will be cast down in turn.
Compared with Moses, or indeed with any of the other prophets, Jeremiah’s is a singularly lonely and thankless mission. He chooses to accept the sweets the Lord has plucked from behind his ear, resists his mission less forcefully than Moses resisted his, and keeps sucking on them for the rest of his life even though they are bitter and he has no assurance that Jerusalem will ever be heard of again. How stoic a character must Jeremiah have had to stand by such a vengeful Lord without flinching, to watch the destruction unfold, and still to find the strength to hope!
Moses is the humble man who could put up with the Jews for 40 years. In this display of fortitude, Jeremiah in many ways proves his equal, except for the biggest difference of all: he lives at the pleasure of a Lord who, instead of inviting him to speak up for a wayward generation, demands that he see it off the premises and then wait like a seed in the ground until some day, some far off and wholly indistinct day, it may sprout.