The Broken-Cistern Syndrome

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Haftarat Matot-Masei, Jeremiah 2:4–28; 4:1–2

by Rabbi Russ Resnik


We live in a culture of addiction. Alcohol and drug addiction rates remain elevated amid the much-discussed opioid crisis. And if you add in what we call “process addictions,” like gambling, compulsive shopping, out-of-control screen time, or habitual pornography use, nearly everyone is touched by addiction in one way or another.  

One of my favorite writers in the field of addiction and recovery (and, yes, it’s strange to have a favorite writer on addiction) is Rabbi Shais Taub, a Chabadnik who is into the AA 12-step approach. The first two of the twelve steps are:

  • We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.

  • Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

Rabbi Taub adds, in his book God of Our Understanding, “The admission of powerlessness and unmanageability is not an aspect of recovery—it’s the very basis of it. Nothing else seems to work very well without complete and unconditional capitulation first.”  

In Rabbi Taub’s view, addiction is not only a pandemic human problem, it’s part of the human condition itself. I agree. We are powerless over our own tendency toward corruption, and only God, the true “Power greater than ourselves” can rescue us—which brings us to this week’s haftarah reading.   

For three Shabbats leading up to Tisha B’Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, the traditional readings are called the Haftarot of Rebuke. These prophetic reproofs of Israel for actions that led to the judgment of Tisha B’Av warn us against similar deeds and attitudes today. This week, in the second Haftarah of Rebuke, Hashem complains against his people in his own words, and it’s not a legal indictment, but a cry of betrayal and bereavement over a lost relationship. The heartbeat of the Prophets, as of all the Tanakh, is not contract and regulation, but covenant between two parties bound together in mutual love and loyalty. And so Hashem brings his charge:  

“Be aghast at this, you heavens!
Shudder in absolute horror!” says Adonai.
“For my people have committed two evils:
they have abandoned me,
the fountain of living water,
and dug themselves cisterns, broken cisterns,
that can hold no water!” Jeremiah 2:12–13

Hashem is grieved that Israel would abandon him, even though he is like an abundant fountain of fresh water to them. And he’s aghast that they would try to replace this life-giving source with cisterns dug in the ground to store water that will soon grow stale and seep away. Israel is like an addict who hasn’t yet admitted he’s powerless over heroin and keeps on trying to manage his drug abuse on his own, like the alcoholic who’s sure he can quit any time. God, however, is not just the “Power greater than ourselves;” he’s the fountain of living waters, the source of life freely opened up to us . . . but we’d rather say, “I can handle this on my own!” A broken cistern seems better to our broken selves than the “complete and unconditional capitulation” Rabbi Taub talks about, even though it’s capitulation to the living God.  

In Jeremiah’s prophecy, God is outraged at Israel and ready to bring judgment against them. But God’s anger is not so much about broken rules and violated commandments. Rather it is the anger of a betrayed lover or friend. Israel’s failure—our failure—is relational more than behavioral (although bad behavior flows out of broken relationship). God is astounded that we would choose our own ways and resources over his abundant supply, that we’d choose our broken and bound-up selves over him. But we continually do. Even in the religious realm we choose the broken cistern of our accomplishments and credentials, or we perseverate over our lack of the same, in place of humble reliance on the merciful, ever-giving God.  

God expands his charge against Israel, culminating in an ironic picture of idol worship as the ultimate broken cistern: 

Where are your gods that you made for yourselves?
Let them rouse themselves,
if they can save you when trouble comes.
Y’hudah, you have as many gods
as you have cities! Jeremiah 2:28

Our reading pauses here, leaving out the rest of Jeremiah 2, but in line with Jewish custom, the reading won’t end on a negative note. So we resume with Jeremiah 4:1–2: “Israel, if you will return,” says Adonai, “yes, return to me.” 

The power of a hopeful ending has proven itself over centuries of Jewish suffering and disappointment, and it also reflects a profound biblical truth. In Torah and the Prophets, and especially in the story of the One who embodied Torah and the Prophets in his own life, death leads to resurrection. Divine judgment prepares the ground for new life. When Yeshua asks his followers who they believe he is, Kefa, Simon Peter, gets it right: “You are the Messiah!” (Mark 8:20). Then Yeshua immediately reveals that he “must suffer many things and be rejected . . . and be killed, and after three days rise again” (8:31). Messiah repeats this saying twice: he must be rejected and be executed by Rome, and he must rise from the dead (9:31, 10:33–34). In Messiah’s own life rejection and death are essential and they lead to resurrection. He calls us not just to ponder this truth, but to participate in it:  

“If anyone wants to come after me, let him say ‘No’ to himself, take up his execution-stake, and keep following me. For whoever wants to save his own life will destroy it, but whoever destroys his life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News will save it.” Mark 8:34–35

Sometimes those who’ve spent the longest time in the faith community are the ones who succumb most readily to the broken-cistern syndrome. We’ve been around long enough, prayed long enough, read enough Scripture, to feel like we can handle things on our own. We’d never say it in those words, but we often forget our desperate need for what only God can provide. We find a way around “complete and unconditional capitulation.” 

As we approach Tisha B’Av, and contemplate the destruction of the Temple and the endless years of exile that followed, we can retain hope, because the fountain of living water is never depleted. Our broken-cistern strivings will never exhaust the mercies of our God. He is ever-present, continually inviting us to drink deeply, again, of him.

All Scripture references are from Complete Jewish Bible (CJB).

Russ Resnik