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Build Houses and Live in Them

My wife, Miranda, and I recently had the pleasure of attending our friend Molly’s wedding. In her vows, Molly lovingly quoted a verse from the prophet Jeremiah to her groom: 

כִּי אָנֹכִי יָדַעְתִּי אֶת־הַמַּחֲשָׁבֹת אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי חֹשֵׁב עֲלֵיכֶם נְאֻם־יְהֹוָה מַחְשְׁבוֹת שָׁלוֹם וְלֹא לְרָעָה לָתֵת לָכֶם אַחֲרִית וְתִקְוָה׃

For I am mindful of the plans I have made concerning you—declares God—plans for your prosperity and not disaster, to give you a future and hope (29:11).

She told him, “This verse has guided my life and, today, you are a part of my plan—a plan of prosperity, not disaster; a plan of joy, not sorrow.” While Molly spoke these words to her beloved in a moment in which she felt her path was being realized, the circumstances for Jeremiah’s prophecy were quite the opposite. 

This message of God’s plan is the core of a three-part prophecy that Jeremiah delivers following the destruction of the Temple and the beginning of the Israelites’ time in exile. In a moment of profound horror and despair, the people are consumed with grief—for their house of worship, for the center of their community, and for their sovereignty. Jeremiah begins this prophecy with instructions: “Build houses and live in them, plant gardens, and eat their fruit (Jeremiah 29:5),” and continue to create families. In other words, even in the midst of their sorrow, Jeremiah urges the Israelites to engage in the basic actions of life: building shelter, feeding themselves, and procreation. If the Israelites are not able to sustain themselves, they will not exist to bring God’s plan to fruition. 

The first step in Jeremiah’s prophecy is to remind the Israelites of their ability to partner with God. The second is to communicate God’s plan. In the translation, the word used is “prosperity,” but the original Hebrew is actually שָׁלוֹם (shalom)—peace and wholeness. Only if we work hand in hand with God will we be able to make our hopes and God’s plan a reality and achieve peace. 

Yet, this is not a paradigm of reward and punishment. In part three of the prophecy, God proclaims through the prophet, “When you call me…and pray to me, I will listen to you. You will search for me and you will find me (Jeremiah 29:12).” In a final effort to pull the Israelites from their despair, God fully commits to the Israelites. God will be there for them in the future. The God of Jeremiah 29 has a plan for us.

But today, as we confront the incomprehensible horrors of October 7 and the depth of adversity and destruction of human life in the ongoing war in Israel and Gaza, I wonder if God really does have a plan for us. Whether the answer is yes or no, there is still light to be found in the other pieces of Jeremiah’s message, to continue to endure. This is exactly what we have seen both on a local scale within Israel as well as on a global scale. From cowboys in Texas to psychologists in Massachusetts, we have watched people all over the world mobilize to provide support to Israelis. Inside Israel, displaced Israelis from the South have received assistance in finding jobs, been provided with streamlined pathways to enroll their children in new schools, and been sent care packages from all over the world. In the United States, even as levels of antisemitism soar, fundraising and aid for humanitarian and emotional trauma support have risen to stunning heights. Even in our despair, we are building houses, planting gardens, and creating families. We are and will not stop living.

In recent months, we have also seen increases in synagogue membership and attendance. As we gather together, we acknowledge that we are all in need of community. It is in these spaces that we can experience fervent prayer, rich learning, and deep, meaningful discussion. Here is where the final part of Jeremiah’s message comes alive. When we enter the synagogue in search of God, we find holiness in the communal breath after singing; sparks of the Divine light up in each of us as we learn and grow together. In this time of exile, of destruction and pain, God is close to us. 

We may not be able to see God’s plans—or even trust that there is one—but our ability to put one foot in front of the other and feel God’s presence will fortify us in the meantime and ready us to forge a path to peace in the future. Ken yehi ratzon—May it be God’s will. 

Shabbat Shalom.