The complaint by Jeremiah the Prophet about the scourge of idol worship which was practiced by the Children of Israel takes on a special meaning in view of the spiritual revolution that took place during his lifetime. At the end of the era of the First Temple, those with the intuition of the Holy Spirit were able to sense that the end of paganism was drawing near, or at least that it was about to become much weaker than it had been in the past. “G-d, my strength and my stronghold and my refuge, the nations will come to You from the ends of the earth, and they will say: The heritage of our fathers was a lie, vanity without any good reason” [Jeremiah 16:19].
This prophecy can be linked to the appearance of critical thinking which was expressed in the development of Greek science and philosophy, and which eradicated from the world the mythological outlook which at the time ruled supreme in the realm of the human spirit. Our sages link this transformation to the exit of the holy Shechina from the world (in the form of a flaming lion cub which fled from the Holy of Holies) and the end of the era of prophecy (Yoma 69b). Indirectly, this led to the stifling of the desire for idol worship among Israel in particular and to a great extent among the rest of the world.
In a world where paganism is about to lose its relevance, we might wonder why it is specifically the nation of G-d which continues to worship idols. And that is the basis for the words of rebuke by the prophet: “Will man be able to make a god for himself? But they are not gods!” [16:20]. That is, even for those among the other nations who worshipped idols this approach has begun to lose its appeal. Could it be that this fault is linked to a high-quality benefit? After all, the nation of Israel is considered “stiff-necked” not only in the negative but also in the active sense, in that they do not rush to repent “and they are not eager to accept a rebuke” [Maharal, Netzach Yisrael, Chapter 14]. The Children of Israel will not change their minds until they are strongly convinced by the arguments of the one who rebukes them. They will not be convinced by mere oratorical skills.
The stiff-necked nature of Israel is the reason that its history is so full of severe crises consisting of destruction and rebuilding, which cause it to change its very nature as time goes on. “Therefore, I declare to them this time – I will tell them about My hand and My might, and they will know that My name is G-d.” [16:21].
The nation of Israel is subject to extreme heights and depths. “When you perform the will of G-d no people can have control over you, but when you do not perform the will of G-d you will be handed over to an inferior nation” [Ketuvot 66b]. This constant zigzag could threaten the very existence of Israel. However, a safety mechanism was put in place in advance which guarantees the existence of the nation. This is the heavenly Temple – the desire of the Holy One, Blessed be He, to be revealed within history by the nation of Israel, a desire which appeared at the very start of Creation. This consoling idea is described by Jeremiah in the Haftarah as “A Throne of Honor raised up from the very beginning, the site of our holy Temple” [17:12]. And this is our source which gives us hope: “G-d is the hope of Israel” [17:13].
Thus, in the end, the Haftarah of rebuke ends on an optimistic note: “Help me and I will be saved, for You are my praise” [17:14].
Source: “NOTES FROM THE HAFTARAH” – a biweekly column in Shabbat B’Shabbato (Zomet Institute) See: http://www.zomet.org.il/eng – Bechukotai 5776, issue 1625.