Don't Follow Your Heart
Haftarah for B’har-B’chukotai
by Rabbi Russ Resnik
Forever young, forever young,
May you stay forever young. (Bob Dylan, Planet Waves)
Have you ever wished that you could start over? That you could be “forever young”—going back to your earliest years of life to erase all your mistakes, cancel all your debts, undo all your sins?
This may sound like wishful thinking, but it was a reality in the Torah legislation of the Jubilee. From one Jubilee to the next, the Israelites counted forty-nine years—seven sevens of years. Seven, the number of perfection, was itself perfected. Then came the fiftieth year, in which Moses instructed the people to “proclaim liberty throughout all the land,” so that “you shall return, each man to his holding and you shall return each man to his family” (25:10). The liberty of Jubilee restores to its original owners any land holding that had been sold, and to his family any Israelite who had sold himself into slavery. Jubilee returns Israel to the original order that the Lord intended for it, the order that he will restore forever in the age to come. The sages of the Talmud said that Jubilee provides a foretaste of “the day that will be all Shabbat, and rest for everlasting life” (b.Tamid 33b).
Our haftarah for the combined reading of B’har-B’chukotai, however, reflects the challenge of getting from this age to the age that is all Shabbat, for “the sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron; with a point of diamond it is engraved on the tablet of their heart” (Jer 17:1). Lest we think that Jeremiah is speaking only of Judah’s heart condition, and not of the heart condition of the whole human race, he continues a few verses down:
The heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately sick;
who can understand it?
I the Lord search the heart and test the mind,
to give every man according to his ways,
according to the fruit of his deeds. (17:9-10)
The heart is deceitful and “desperately sick” is one of the great counter-cultural statements of Scripture. In an age in which we’re taught to follow our hearts, the words of Jeremiah provide a radical rebuke. You can’t trust your heart. God is looking for fruitful deeds, not lofty sentiment. But the prophet also gives hope, reflecting the hope of Jubilee and restoration outlined in our double parashah:
Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed;
save me, and I shall be saved,
for you are my praise. (17:14)
This prayer of hope has been incorporated into the Siddur as the eighth blessing of the Amidah, the traditional series of blessings recited every day. The Siddur changes its language from singular to plural: “Heal us O Lord and we shall be healed; save us and we shall be saved, for you are our praise.”
Jeremiah reveals that the hope of restoration, the jubilee to come, is greater than the threat of failure and punishment—and that this hope doesn’t depend on us, but on the healing, restorative power of Hashem. He is our praise! The corporate language of the Siddur reflects other portrayals of this same promise throughout Scripture, showing that it is not only a personal hope, but a promise for all Israel, and the whole of humankind as well.
The accounts of the coming of Messiah echo this hope, as well as the barriers to be overcome on the way to it. When Yochanan the Immerser was bound in prison, he sent two of his disciples to ask Yeshua, “Are you the Coming One, or do we look for another?” Yeshua answered in the language of Jubilee, specifically, like Jeremiah, the language of healing and restoration. The restoration of the age to come had already broken into this age, so Yochanan should know who Yeshua was. “Go and tell Yochanan the things that you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is he who is not offended because of me” (Matt 11:2–6).
But why would one be offended by Yeshua? Because he claims to be Messiah at a time when the Jubilee is not fully established. Yochanan remains imprisoned. Roman armies occupy the land of Israel. But Yeshua shows that the Jubilee has indeed begun with his arrival in Israel, and so will inevitably be fulfilled. In the meantime, do not be offended, but maintain hope.
Once when I was talking with a non-Messianic Jewish friend about Yeshua, he said, “OK, Yeshua is a great guy. I’ll even accept that he is the greatest guy, but Messiah—who knows? Besides, who needs a Messiah?”
I could have reminded my friend of the Jeremiah’s warning. The heart is deceitful and desperately sick—and “Who needs a Messiah” is one of its lies. Or on a friendlier note I could have said that I need a Messiah and Yeshua has proved himself as Messiah to me . . . and that if you ever figure out that you need a Messiah, Yeshua will be there for you too.
Instead, I focused on the corporate aspect. You may not realize that you need a Messiah, but you cannot deny that this world does. Just look at the suffering, injustice, and oppression all around us. Yeshua embodies the hope of liberty, of a return to God’s order and justice that is rooted in the Torah and reflected throughout our Scriptures and prayers. Yeshua has already launched a restoration that has had immeasurable impact on the world we live in, and is evidence of the redemption to come. My personal story of salvation is only a foretaste of the worldwide Jubilee that Messiah will bring.
It’s fitting that our traditional prayers expand Jeremiah’s plea for healing from the singular to the plural. In age when each person is urged to follow his or her own heart, Scripture pictures a redemption that goes far beyond the personal to bring hope to all the nations, as in the opening words of our haftarah:
O Lord, my strength and my stronghold,
my refuge in the day of trouble,
to you shall the nations come
from the ends of the earth . . . (Jer 16:9)
Adapted from Creation to Completion: A Guide to Life’s Journey from the Five Books of Moses, by Rabbi Russell Resnik, Messianic Jewish Publishers, 2006