1. In the first verses of Chapter 7, Jeremiah delivers a sermon prophesying doom for the Temple and the nation because of the people's moral sins and pagan practices. This text follows that sermon.
2. Note the conclusion of the haftarah is a single verse from a later chapter. This is frequently the case in order to end on a positive note of religious instruction.
I. Read 7: 21-22. Read Lev. 7:38.
A. What did Jeremiah just say? Did he say that the people might as well eat the burnt offering? Recall the Torah says that the burnt offering (the olah) was to be burnt whole and not eaten. Did Jeremiah not read his Bible, or care what it said? Does God change the instruction? Or does Jeremiah have something else in mind?
(This is tough!)
He could be saying that these rules are secondary to something else, which he'll address shortly.
Or, as certain Jewish sages who have wrestled with this challenging text over the centuries have said (including Radak), it could be that what Jeremiah is saying should be taken literally: these rules were not given when the Israelites were "freed from the land of Egypt" or even as part of the Ten Commandments, but rather were given subsequently and thus somehow came second to the direction of the broader covenant language and the ten.
In other words, the first message to the people when "I freed your fathers from Egypt," you'll recall, was about the essentials of the covenant. You follow and obey Me, and I'll make you a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. This was followed by the 10 Utterances. And then came the rules and regulations.
There's a great debate that has been fought over the centuries among Jewish sages and religionists. Was all of Torah (including the Oral Law) revealed at Sinai? While the order of the words is subject to debate, the the traditionalists say so, which causes great difficulty with Jeremiah's words. They would say, no, God did teach it all, including these ways of offerings at Sinai.)
B. We know that the compilation of the text did occur over time. But, however and in what ways and what time frame the revelation took place and however the text of the Bible was compiled - the sages would generally take the approach of trying to square the words of Jeremiah with the words of Exodus and Vayikra. How might that be done?
(One understanding might be to see the offerings from people who have egregiously violated, and continue to violate, even flout, the letter and spirit of the basic covenant, as worthless, indeed repugnant. One might as well eat of these offerings oneself instead of burning them whole because, as we studied in the prophets, such offerings under such conditions would be noxious to God.
Recall the general view of the prophets was that sacrifices were in order but that when they are given in the context of one's pervasive and continuing disobedience to God's word either in deed or worship they are odious.)
C. Having understood all that, must we still confront the fact that Jeremiah seems to be going beyond this, beyond where most of the prophets take us? Is that possible? And are there explanations for it?
(Possibly. A strong argument is made for moving beyond sacrifice.)
It could be as Radak suggests. Or, it could be, as many other sages who lived and taught after the fall of both Temples have suggested, that Jeremiah's views here are suited to a new condition in which the people have to find a substitute for the sacrifices, that God will expect something else, in an era when the Temple no longer stands.
They rush to fill the void with prayer and insistence on acts of loving kindness. They also build on Jeremiah's words that there are other expectations, which we will study in a moment that become central. This idea that the sacrifices are to be a thing of the past is a powerful one in our tradition, and many see this pairing of Jeremiah with Tzav as a difficult, but necessary duality that helps effect the transition.
Even I, who want to continue to model our lives on the intentions of the Torah text on sacrifice, join in the understanding, as we have discussed, that we don't bring grains and animals in the post-Temple world.
Further, as we will discuss in a moment, there are core values that are essential to God and more fundamental to God's expectations of us. When the sacrificial avenue is no longer used in service of those expectations and indeed abused to mask behavior detestable to God, Jeremiah's righteous indignation is clearly in line.
BUT I am not willing to go that far, and, I hold to the view, as you know, for continuing meaning to sacrifice.
I want to "make a case" that goes more to reconciling the two. It's true sacrifice was not a part of the core covenant language in the initial revelation after our redemption. Instead, it appears, as we studied, to be a gift to us that God gave us through Moses to help draw God-directed people near to God, for a variety of important purposes and at a variety of times.
When the people began to bring offerings as part of fraudulent rituals that really masked disobedience to God's most important values, this was odious to God. Jeremiah may mostly be telling us that when one engages in this disgusting practice there should be no pretense that following the procedures associated with the pathways of Vayikra and Tzav has any applicability to what they're doing.
At a deeper level, it may be that Jeremiah is saying that people who violate God's trust so brazenly and come to sacred space acting as if these offerings will make everything alright might as well eat the olah. In effect, their robbing the meat that was to be burned whole to God would be a perfect parallel to their stealing God's due by living against God and trying to hide it through fraudulent ritual.
At bottom, I'm inclined to side with the prophets, sages and commentators who seek to find a way to reconcile Jeremiah's words with the words of the Torah, rather than seeing them as a refutation.
II. Read 7:23-26
A. So, what did God command of first importance and what did the people do?
(Jeremiah sees the command at its most basic and significant level as being true to the covenant and to walk in God's ways. Yet, they followed their own ways and not God's, and did so persistently and consistently, even after being sent prophets who warned them to get right.
The implication is that people followed the rituals and made sacrifices all the while that they strayed and disobeyed God in more important matters, never understanding that offerings were to be in service of obedience to the covenant.
That would be hypocritical and awful and certainly unacceptable to God.)
B. But, going back to the Torah portion, let me ask this question: did God expect people to come near with offerings while they had unresolved sin on their hands; did God expect people to come forward with offerings all the while they were disobeying God, as if the offerings would substitute for living as God expected?
(No! Never! The prophets make clear that ritual and living right go hand in hand and support each other. That's what the Bible expects. Interpreting Jeremiah, one could say once they get de-linked, the sacrifice is good for nothing. "You might as well eat the meat of the burnt offering!")
III. Read 27-34.
A. Since we know God is always open to our return, how do you explain the certainty with which Jeremiah believes the people will not listen to his admonition?
(It must be that their apostasy, their fraud in the sacred space and their idolatry elsewhere are, at least in the short term, firm and unshakable. Prophet after prophet, warning after warning, they persist in their awful waywardness.)
B. Can it be that a people will have gone so far against God their doom is their destiny? Does this happen, and how? Does the metaphoric language here of death and the silence of the mirth and gladness in the streets, the "voice of the bride and groom" - is this the case when people abandon God? Discuss.
C. Can people be given God's way and means of salvation, have all that made available to them and yet choose to be wicked, ignoring, flouting, and making irrelevant the gift of the Way with which God has blessed them?
(I think definitely so. That seems to be what this is about. The way of the mitzvot, the promise of the covenant, the beauty and meaning of the system of offerings - all comes to naught, as wonderful a gift all that is, if people ignore it or use it fraudulently.
Indeed the indictment in 30 makes clear it's not the prescriptions for God's House that are the problem; rather it's the abominations that have been brought there, and the defiling. And, further, it's the building of space elsewhere to serve idols at the same time.)
D. What does it mean that the people have "burned their their sons and daughters in fire" at the other sites?
(Human sacrifice? Shown their children other sacrifices in fire that God did not command? Recall that the portion is called "command," as if to say we do what God has commanded, not what God has not commanded. So, whatever this is, and it must have been awful, was not commanded.
Going to the sacred space and going through the motions there while doing all this other awful stuff gives one no protection. Again, you might as well eat the meat of the olah because, in effect, expropriating the position of God is fundamentally what's going on here with these people.)
IV. Read 8:3. I think I'll let us skip the gruesome first two verses here. Death, preferable to the misery of exile. Terrible.
V. The haftarot tend to end on a hopeful or, at least directionally positive note. Let's read 9:22-23.
A. What do we take away from this?
(There's nothing we have in our physical being, even our strongest asset, that we should glory in. The only thing to glory in is "earnest devotion" to God. God acts with kindness, justice, and equity (chesed, mishpat, and tzedakah) in the world AND God delights in them.
Isn't it obvious that the people, even those living according to the rituals, were not living in accord with these expectations?)
B. Why the extra mention that God delights in these things? We would know that from the previous clause, no?
(This is to confirm that God expects this from us!)
So, where might we end up with this difficult, yet powerful and challenging text?
There is no doubt that these words of Jeremiah's, the people's abuse of the sacrificial system, along with the destruction of the Temples and the rabbis' having to cope with the loss, have had the effect of pushing us beyond the explicit sacrificial system prescribed in the text. Again, I remind you I do not favor sacrifice of grains and animals. So, we do move beyond the surface practices in the Bible.
But do we give up altogether on the text, which we believe to be God's eternal word? How tragic it would be that the people's abuse of God's gift would have the effect of nullifying God's gift! I don't think we do.
Now that we've finished reading the whole text, let's go back through it one last quick time to review it for possibly its deepest meaning.
Jeremiah condemns the people who bring the olah with the hope of seeking expiation for continued wrongdoing of the worst offenses to God. He says that God's most fundamental requirement of us is to obey God, live in covenant with God, and live true to God's desire that we be kind, just, and righteous.
Now here's where I want to conclude: our commitment to being kind, just, and righteous is what we are to have in our heart. Indeed it should be the kavanah, the spirit, with which we bring whatever the olah is in our own time.
Being kind, just, and righteous is of utmost importance to God. It is for God that we be this way. And indeed our offerings to God should be made from a foundation of our commitment to living in these ways of God. We've studied this before. It was at the core of why we were redeemed from Egypt and what we were first taught when we were brought out. And, as we have discussed, it is profoundly consistent with Jesus' teaching that we love God and we love each other.
When we stray from living as God desires and instead live out desires that violate these expectations, we, in effect, eat of the meat that was intended for God, as if it were ours. We arrogate "the meat" that was intended to God for ourselves, acting as if we are God.
This is what Jeremiah was saying: When we worship false gods, when we are hurtful of others and oblivious to their needs, and when we engage in rituals through which we somehow think we'll be absolved of responsibility for our wrongdoing, we abandon our covenant with God and act as if we are God. So to speak, we eat the meat that was intended for God.
Our living true to lovingkindness, justice, and righteousness are for God. We live this way as an offering to God. And the olah is, and should be, representative of our living in covenant with, and dutibound to, God, and given with a heart full of the knowledge of to Whom the offering is brought and for Whom it is consumed.
So, in my mind, it's both true that we no longer bring grains and animals AND that we are to be guided by the Bible instruction on the sacrifices, both as to how these gifts can provide meaning in our lives and how we are to use (and not abuse) them in true obedience to God in all we do.