Of Prophets, Politics, and Possibility

I have been taking a class this year on the Jewish Prophets at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem. We have three classroom lectures on a prophet and for the fourth class we have a guided tour to learn about the prophet in the places where he actually prophesized.

This past week, we toured the life of Jeremiah. Jeremiah delivered his prophecies at the end of the First Temple period (6th Century BCE), through the destruction and ultimate exile of the Israelites from Jerusalem.

Jeremiah was from Anatot in the region of the tribe of Benjamin, today a 15-20 minute drive from downtown Jerusalem (no traffic, of course) and for Jeremiah, an hour walk to the Old City. Our mini-bus drove through the northeastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Ze’ev which sits next to the Hizmah road barrier. We crossed into the Palestinian territory and soon found ourselves within the 15 foot high concrete separation wall (we were maybe 50 feet from it). As we passed it, I could see from time to time the word “GHETTO” graffiti’ed on the wall. We passed through a large Palestinian town and then some mountainous country side, and then we arrived to the Jewish town of Anatot, established in the 1980s.

This is not actually believed to be the original Anatot of Jeremiah. No one knows exactly where it is. There is a Palestinian town called Anata which could be it. There were actually four towns mentioned in the Bible in this area that were allotted to the priests (Joshua 21), so the town also bears the name Almon because it could be the site of that ancient town as well. So, the official name of the town is Anatot-Almon. (on my map, it was just Almon)

From Anatot-Almon, we entered the National Park of En Prat. We descended on a narrow road and hairpin curves – not a descent for the weak of stomach. And the most gorgeous view I have seen in a long time – on the sides of us, the mountains green and blooming with the winter flowers, majestic jagged cliffs, and looking ahead east toward Jericho and the Dead Sea the proud and steadfast brown desert mountains fading into a mist in the distance.

At the bottom, we sat at the stream (the nahal) which is a tributary to Wadi Kelt which flows down to the Dead Sea. The stream is mentioned in the book of Jeremiah and we relived the metaphors that Jeremiah expressed in this place that he must have often visited (Jeremiah 13, 17). The stream comes from an underground source so it flows the year round and there are remains of settlements here throughout history, as water in the desert is a precious commodity, which proves its importance. This place represents for me the conundrum of this land – the area of our prophet Jeremiah is the Palestinian territories. It is part of our Jewish historical heritage, but it is bound up with the lives here-and-now of people from another heritage and sits on their side of a political boundary.

We then followed Jeremiah’s path back to Jerusalem to understand his journey and his perspective. In general, we think of going to Jerusalem as an aliyah, a going up. But Jeremiah describes looking down on Jerusalem. How is this so? Jeremiah came from the east, also a mountainous area as I described, and he descended to Jerusalem from what is today the Mount of Olives, the site of the largest Jewish cemetery in the world and also a number of sites holy to Christians and Muslims. We sat on the Mount of Olives, and indeed, we looked down the Temple Mount of the Old City of Jerusalem. We saw Jerusalem as Jeremiah saw it.

Jeremiah, for me, epitomizes the ultimate questions about truth and justice in the world. He did not perform signs and wonders like Elijah the prophet to prove that he was speaking for G-d. Jeremiah first began preaching doom and gloom in a time where things were actually pretty good. He called the people to surrender to the enemy and to accept defeat and exile. If you ask most people today if someone were to come along and tell us that the State of Israel should give in to her enemies and cease to fight for her existence, they say they also would not listen to such a person.

This leaves us with the ultimate question: How do we know what is right in the world? Beginning with those who claim to know the word of G-d (in Israel, there are many of those types) – how are they and their followers so sure? And for the rest of us – what voice do we listen to in order to do the right thing?
I think of it, especially, in terms of spiritual leadership. Anyone today who claims to hear firsthand G-d speaking to him in his ear telling him exactly what to say is not taken seriously. What is the place of the spiritual leader and why should people listen to him or her? Our prophets teach us that a leader must be one who has a strong sense of right and wrong and who projects a vision for society that is based on the exercise of ethics, morality, and compassionate justice. A leader must be prepared to be the lonely voice at times but must remain steadfast and not be swayed by every request, complaint, and the temptation to give up or stray from the path.

The prophet was also a great source of inspiration. Isaiah (40) said, “Comfort, oh comfort my people.” As the exile took place, Jeremiah prophesied also of the return to the Land, symbolically purchasing property to express this hope (Jeremiah 32). The people did seek the prophets for this comfort and hope that they provided. Today as well, the spiritual leader needs to inspire, give hope, and help to rally people to stand up and do the right thing.

As Jeremiah prophesied (Jeremiah 34), “Again there shall be heard in this place…the sound of mirth and gladness, the voice of groom and bride, the voice of those who cry, ‘Give thanks to G-d!’…” And it has indeed come to pass.

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