by Saul Beck
As Tisha B'Av is the saddest day of the Jewish calendar, it is appropriate that this Haftarah is almost entirely negative, not to mention difficult and ambiguous. It comes from the book of Jeremiah and takes place very shortly before the Babylonian attack of Judah; one gets the impression that the enemies are practically at the gates. Jeremiah prophesies the fate of the nation; he clearly sees it very vividly before it even happens.
Different voices are interwoven throughout the narrative, including that of Jeremiah himself, God Himself, and female dirge-singers, professional mourners. It is not always clear who is speaking, and multiple interpretations are certainly possible. What is certain, however, is Jeremiah's agony in seeing the upcoming destruction and being unable to do anything about it.
The prophet gives a terrifying description of the northern enemy of Babylon about to overrun the land. He weeps for the people, asking God why the destruction must happen. God replies that the people have sinned through idolatry and through deceitful behavior even towards their own siblings; the Hebrew strongly echoes Jacob's deceit of Esau. The dirge-singers are called upon to lament the upcoming mass slaughter of the people of Judah, graphically pictured by the prophet. The Haftarah concludes with God's voice, as He reminds the people of their covenantal duties: to remain loyal to God by “kindness, justice, and equity” as God Himself does.
By now, it should be clear just how grim this Haftarah is. The enemies are practically at the gates; Jeremiah foresees their imminent arrival, and knowing that a blow is about to fall is hardly a comfort. The nation's doom is inevitably horrific; the mass slaughter is undoubtedly the worst part of it, even alongside the Temple's impending destruction.
For His part, God is quite uncompromising and even contemptuous in His declaration; He calls the people “all adulterers” and “a band of rogues.” The Haftarah is telling us that all the horrors which we, the people of Judah, suffered during the destruction of the First Temple were decreed and carried out by God because of our sins. Finis.
Yet there is a problem here. At the end of the Haftarah, we are told that God acts with “kindness, justice, and equity.” The book of Lamentations points out an obvious difficulty – is what happened to us truly just? “My maidens and youths are fallen by the sword; You (God) slew them on Your day of wrath, You slaughtered without pity” (Lam. 2:21). As Jeremiah mourns the tragedy both before and after it takes place, he seems to be asking God, “Do we really deserve this? We sinned, certainly, but is this punishment fair?”
It is because of this question that we are permitted to study the book of Job on Tisha B'Av; this is precisely what Job is all about. Job, an Edomite, is an extremely righteous man. As he points out, however, it is impossible to be absolutely righteous. Yet the terrible misfortune he suffers at God's hand does not seem to fit with any sin he might have committed. In essence, he is asking God the same question: “Do I really deserve this?”
The notion of a human being challenging God's justice is a troubling one, and Job's friends criticize him harshly for it. They claim that Job must deserve his suffering; otherwise, God would not have brought it upon him. In the end, however, God angrily forces Job's friends to do penitence for their dishonesty about God. Job, by contrast, was quite honest; he felt that his suffering was undeserved, and he stood up for himself. Job challenged God with honesty; in this Haftarah and in the book of Lamentations, Jeremiah does so as well.
Such is the true relationship between us and God, and such is the lesson we learn from Tisha B'Av: God loves an honest question, and He even loves a challenge. This has become all the more salient as the years have gone on, and the suffering of the Jewish people has sometimes become so terrible as to defy any kind of justification. While we suffer, we should never feel ashamed to ask God, “Do we deserve this?”