Haftoras Masei: 2 Evils

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

Typically, the haftorah read after the Shabbos layning reflects some relevant theme in that particular week’s Torah portion. However, after the Fast of the 17th of Tammuz, the themes of the haftorah change, shifting from being tied to the parsha to taking on elements of the unique period of mourning and consolation that begins with the fast. Clearly, the intent of Chazal was to study each one, assisting us in both understanding the evil acts we have engaged in, as well as the nechama offered by Hashem as we move away from the day the Bais Hamikdash was destroyed. Looking at the second of these special readings, we see some important insights into our destructive behavior.  

In the midst of presenting what was the current appalling state of the nation, Yirmiyahu focuses on what Bnai Yisrael did to bring themselves to this level(2:13):

For My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.”

No one can doubt the poetic beauty in such statements – yet, what are these two evils? 

The Talmud takes a step in clarifying this verse (Taanis 5a-b):

R. Nahman further said to R. Isaac: What is the meaning of the verse, For my people have committed two evils? Were they only two? Has he then ignored the fact that they were twenty-four? [as listed in Yechezkel] — He [R. Isaac] replied: There is one [evil] which is equal to two, and that is, idolatrous worship, for it is written, For my people have committed two evils they have forsaken me…”

While we now understand the subject of the sin, namely idolatry, the actual content of the verse is still quite obscure. Yet, there is an interesting concept that emerges from this explanation in the Talmud. While the sin is counted as one, is it comprised of two evils. How do we understand this in the context of idolatry? After all, one would assume that the evil consists of worshipping something other than Hashem. Why two evils?

Before tackling that question, let’s first get a better understanding of the verse itself. The Radak offers a lengthy commentary of the above verse. He writes that the mashal of Hashem as the fountain of living water – a spring – refers to the good Hashem offers to those seeking him. How so? The Radak presents two unique features to a spring. First, a spring has no identifiable source for its water supply resulting in a seemingly independent flow of water. A river, by comparison, requires some type of external source to maintain it, whether it is rain or some other body of water. So too, Hashem is not dependent on anything else to supply the good – it comes from Him and no other. The second feature of the spring is its constancy. The water emanating is always a steady flow, no starts and stops, no increases or decreases. Obviously, the same cannot be said about other sources of water. We see this feature, according to the Radak, expressed in the good offered by Hashem, which is also a constant, without any type of fluctuation. Of course, this is in contrast to putting one’s faith in a king (in this case, referring to the situation with Yoshiyahu and the king of Egypt), where the king’s power is dependent on his army. Furthermore, putting one’s faith in other gods is equivalent to the broken cisterns, where water fills them up, then quickly leaks out.

The Radak must be alluding to a deeper idea, as a cursory reading of his explanation certainly offers no clearer picture. One could also ask why it is that with all this “good” offered by God, how can Bnai Yisrael ever turn away? The answer lies in understanding the spring analogy as described by the Radak. In the first characteristic, Hashem is described as not being dependent on something else to provide the good to us. This would seem to be referring to Hashem as the Source of all, where He alone provides for us. We see this idea presented in the spring, where the spring itself is viewed as the source, rather than relying on some other body of water to supply it. It also means that the good we receive is never at the mercy of some other source. However, seeing Hashem in this way brings to light another stark reality – our existences are completely dependent on Him. To truly internalize this idea is to put aside any pretense of ego-centricity, a concept that not endearing to most people. Yirmiyahu is pointing out how Bnai Yisrael are uncomfortable with this truth, and thereby leave Hashem to put their faith in the king. The king projects an air of independence, as if he alone is the source of strength necessary to defeat the enemy. The nation identifies with this attitude, hopeful that somehow this will provide for them. Yet, as the Radak points out, such an attitude is folly. 

In the second concept, we see the good as a constant when emerging from Hashem, lacking any type of ebb and flow. What is this referring to? The fact that the good is a constant must mean it is present at all times. This could be referring to the myriad means available to us to access Hashem. Whether it is through the system of mitzvos, the surrounding physical world, or the metaphysical truths about Hashem given over to us, the good is expressed through this constant state of accessibility. This does not necessarily have a natural appeal to the average individual either. We are much more impressed by the supernatural rarities than the norm. The irregular occurrence is what draws us in – the water enters into the cistern, where there was none previously. Yet, as the Radak points out, it is not capable of being stored. 

This leads us to back to one of the original questions – what is the idea of idolatry being comprised of two evils, rather than simply one? From the standpoint of the non-Jew, the evil of idolatry is indeed solitary. He has no direction other than to follow his instincts, leading him down the road to idolatry. Of course, this does not mean every non-Jew shares in this fate. It just means that there is no semblance of a choice, as the non-Jew has never been exposed to the true ideas concerning Hashem. The same cannot be said of Bnai Yisrael. The foundation of our faith lies in our understanding and acceptance of Hashem as the God of the universe, expressed through such truths as God as the Source and constant provider of good. When Bnai Yisrael take upon themselves the world of the idolatrous, they are in fact exercising a collective type of freewill, choosing to leave Hashem for something else. It is this choice that is the core of the two evils, and it is only through our unique knowledge of God that such a decision could be made. 

An understanding of the power of the draw towards idolatry is not just a crucial point in the specific prophecy of Yirmiyahu, but is a reality we must confront constantly. As we slowly make our way towards that tragic day commemorating the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash, we must be acutely aware of this recurring flaw. Our ability to understand this, and ultimately perform teshuva, will only help us bring about the building of the third Bais Hamikdash, bimhera biyameinu.