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Taste of Haftarah: Mattot-Mas’ei

הַכֹּהֲנִים, לֹא אָמְרוּ אַיֵּה יְהוָה, וְתֹפְשֵׂי הַתּוֹרָה לֹא יְדָעוּנִי, וְהָרֹעִים פָּשְׁעוּ בִי; וְהַנְּבִאִים נִבְּאוּ בַבַּעַל, וְאַחֲרֵי לֹא-יוֹעִלוּ הָלָכוּ ‘

The priests never asked themselves, “Where is the LORD?” The guardians of the Teaching ignored Me; The rulers rebelled against Me, And the prophets prophesied by Baal And followed what can do no good. 

Reading Jeremiah always leaves me a little uneasy; there’s something about the rage and disappointment coming from this prophet that can leave us trembling and questioning ourselves. How do we embrace the words of this righteous person (tzadik) of God telling us we should all do better?

Jeremiah led a life dedicated to keeping the strict standards as God instructed him. He was asked to avoid socializing or visiting public houses, drinking wine, and to father no sons or daughters. In this week’s Haftarah, Jeremiah admonishes the people of Israel for all of their wrongdoings: politically, spiritually, and morally. The uncompromising moral standards of Jeremiah echo the tales and stories of the tzadikim (righteous people) I heard growing up. 

In Jewish North African (Maghreb) traditions, especially in Morocco, it was common to make pilgrimage to the tombs of outstanding figures (kivrei tzadikim). The tombs of these righteous figures, usually rabbis, were believed to hold miraculous capabilities: they could heal the sick, increase prosperity, and bestow fertility, among other miracles. The voyage often involved traveling long distances from home, and was considered a holy journey that Jews took upon themselves. During this journey, it was customary for a person to make a vow (neder). These vows were often promises to improve their behavior and address their personal failings, or to participate in volunteer work, usually around the holy site. The tzadikim were a part of the everyday life of the Jews in North Africa. Their stories and wisdom were known to all, even more among the common people.

This practice has not been embraced by all Jews. Among some groups, such as Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews and more liberal and secular communities in Israel, this phenomenon has been looked down upon and criticized as being primitive and outdated. One famous Israeli artist and publicist referred to “those who kiss the ‘lucky charms’ and bow down at the graves of the dead” in the same breath as thieves and bribe-takers. With a few sentences, he dismissed the beliefs of close to a million traditional Jews and the importance these tzadikim play in their lives.

Even though I don’t “go up” (La’a lot, in Hebrew literally “to rise”) to tombs myself, I understand and appreciate the custom: not only for what it offers to the pilgrim, but also for what the tradition asks of the one seeking blessings. For someone living in 18th or 19th century Morocco, Libya, or Tunis to make a pilgrimage, there was much to consider before embarking on the journey: Leaving their home and occupation for an unknown period of time. Traveling great distances into unknown lands. Making vows to improve themselves and their communities, and the accompanying fear of failure. Despite these challenges, many were undeterred in taking on this holy obligation in the name of the great and holy figures they revered. Every step of the process, from the moment they left home, forced these Jews to rise to the challenge and change for the better, a change led by the exemplary figure of the tzadik.

Our world is full of prominent voices: politicians, activists, athletes, celebrities. In a loud room, it can be difficult to pinpoint the voices that are worth listening to; and, more often than not, it is the loudest voices that are the most often heard—whether or not their words are worthy of the discourse. Jeremiah has similar concerns about the society he lives in and its leaders, specifically the kings, prophets, and the priests that went astray. As for the people that follow them, he asks: Are these men your leaders, the people that you follow? Are they encouraging you to challenge and improve yourself, and if not, are they still worthy of following?

Jeremiah asks us to redeem ourselves through actions—not though words or ceremonies. For Jeremiah, a leader is a tzadik: someone who, by the life he leads and the example he gives, urges you to be better and to live closer to your values. Today, Jews are still inspired to make pilgrimages to holy tombs. I believe that these travels are spiritual work, and help these pilgrims make themselves worthy of the blessings they hope to receive. In other words: It’s about the journey and the destination.

Do I think we all should visit graves, lay on them, and kiss them in the hope of a miracle? No, not if it isn’t your custom. But Jeremiah’s message to us this week, and in the weeks leading up to Tisha Be’Av, should challenge all of us to engage in serious heshbon hanefesh (accounting of the soul) around our leaders. Who are they, and are they worthy of us following them? Do they tell us what we want to hear, or are they challenging us to look within ourselves and see how we can improve? I hope these weeks leading up to Tisha Be’Av are an opportunity to quiet down, look within, and open our ears and hearts to the voices who inspire us to create a greater world.