Parashat Matot-Mas’ei, Numbers 30:1-36:13; Haftarah, Jeremiah 2:4-28, 3:4
Those whom I love, I rebuke and discipline. Therefore, be zealous and repent. Revelation 3:19, TLV
Words of reproof are difficult to hear, and often unwelcome, but they’re essential to a life of knowing and serving the God of Israel. And so the cycle of the Jewish year makes sure that there are times when we can’t avoid such words.
This week we are in the midst of the Haftarot of Affliction, passages from the prophets read over the three weeks leading up to Tisha b’Av (August 1), anniversary of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. These passages are difficult—full of rebuke and admonition—but necessary if we’re to be genuinely prepared for Tisha b’Av and all it means. They’re also necessary for all of us as individuals and as a community if we’re to have a full-orbed, and not just a feel-good, relationship with God.
These prophecies are filled with warnings that Israel largely ignored in ancient times, which still demand our attention today:
Be appalled at this, O heavens!
Be utterly horrified and dumbfounded.
It is a declaration of Adonai.
My people have committed two evils:
They have forsaken Me
—the spring of living water—
and they dug their own cisterns—
cracked cisterns that hold no water. (Jer. 2:12–13, TLV)
It’s a powerful rebuke of the folly of abandoning the living God for the sake of man-made practices and pursuits that will never really fill our souls. Last week’s reading, however, concluded with a word of commendation for Israel, which also still applies today.
I remember the devotion of your youth,
your love as a bride,
and the way you followed Me in the wilderness,
in a land not sown.
Israel was holy to Adonai,
the firstfruits of the harvest. (Jer. 2:2–3,TLV modified)
From this high point of devotion to the Lord, Israel descended into the devotion to false gods, forsaking the living waters of Adonai for leaky tanks of stale water, tanks they found desirable because they were man-made. Jeremiah denounces this folly in words that ring out today.
I began writing this commentary on my way home from Chicago, site of our annual UMJC conference last week. The conference had multiple points of excellence, and the plenary messages stood out among them. It wasn’t hard to trace a continuous theme throughout these messages: our community has been raised up by the Lord with a share in His mission to all Israel and to the nations. This is a message of commendation, but it also contained, like Jeremiah’s message, a word of reproof and correction. Our community is nowhere near abandoning the living waters of Messiah, but are we overly attracted to waters that we can store and manage ourselves? Have we lost the devotion of our youth? Are we neglecting the mission that we should be sharing with God Himself?
The plenary sessions opened on Thursday evening with a message from our new Executive Director that framed the big vision of Messianic Judaism with three Shavuots: first, the giving of Torah on Mount Sinai, which launched Israel on its mission as a priestly nation; second, the outpouring of the Ruach after Messiah Yeshua’s resurrection and ascension, which launched the worldwide Yeshua movement that is still advancing today; and third, the Shavuot of June, 1967, immediately following the Six-Day War and liberation of Jerusalem, which launched a Ruach awakening that is at the root of today’s Messianic Jewish movement.
On Saturday morning, our new UMJC president brought a lively and engaging message from Parashat Pinchas with a profound insight: Pinchas is one of several characters in this parasha who took decisive action in the present for the sake of the future. Monique pictured our future, the convergence of the three Shavuots as all Israel embraces Messiah Yeshua and rises as a light to the nations; Jesse called on us to pay the price today to ensure that future. Our guest speakers, Canon Andrew White, the “Vicar of Baghdad,” and Wayne Hilsden, founder of King of Kings Congregation in Jerusalem, also brought words of encouragement, noting the presence of the Ruach among us, and our faithfulness over decades of serving Messiah. But their messages also held an element of correction, calling us back to simple devotion to the living God, and to the twofold mission of God described by Isaiah:
It is too trifling a thing that You should be My servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and restore the preserved ones of Israel.
So I will give You as a light for the nations,
that You should be My salvation to the end of the earth. (Is. 49:5a – 6)
The servant here is ultimately Messiah Himself, but in his message Wayne Hilsden followed Paul’s example of including followers of Yeshua in the servant’s mission (Acts 13:47). Likewise, the Messianic Jewish community has a share in this two-fold mission to Israel and to the nations, and we do well to ask ourselves how well we are fulfilling it. The Haftarot of Affliction are meant to stir us, not to shame and self-doubt, but to refocused devotion as we prepare to meet God afresh during the Days of Awe later this year.
In accord with Jewish custom this week’s haftarah does not end with the rebuke of Jeremiah chapter 2, but with a note of hopeful invitation in a final verse added from chapter 3.
Will you not from this time call to Me,
“My Father, you are the guide of my youth.” (Jer. 3:4, literal translation)
Tisha b’Av is a day of mourning that’s essential preparation for the Days of Awe, Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur (September 20–30). In the same way the prophet’s reproof is essential for our renewed devotion to God and the two-fold mission that He shares with us as we follow Messiah Yeshua. Will we call on Him to guide us in the days ahead?