The Tochacha of Yirmiyahu

R. Darrell Ginsberg

Typically, the weekly haftorah reflects certain themes from the parsha. However, this week we begin the ten special readings that coincide with the fast of the seventeenth of tamuz. The first three focus on  tochacha and puraniyos, while the remaining seven deal with nechama for the Jewish people. The first of these readings comes from the first chapter of Yirmiyahu. The ideal way to describe the prophecy of Yirmiyahu comes from the title of the Malbim’s commentary: “Tochachat Yirmiyahu”, or the reproof of Yirmiyahu. In other words, the entire scope of his prophecy would be admonishment. In this first chapter, Yirmiyahu is presented with a difficult mission. We do not actually learn much of the rebuke itself, which can be found in the 51 other chapters. Instead, we are introduced to how his tochacha would emerge, and how God desired for this unique prophet to deliver His message to the Jewish people. 

The initial prophecy between God and Yirmiyahu offers an interesting back and forth (Yirmiyahu 1:4-10):

“And the word of the LORD came unto me, saying:  Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee, and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee; I have appointed thee a prophet unto the nations.  Then said I: 'Ah, Lord GOD! behold, I cannot speak; for I am a child.'  But the LORD said unto me: say not: I am a child; for to whomsoever I shall send thee thou shalt go, and whatsoever I shall command thee thou shalt speak. Be not afraid of them; for I am with thee to deliver thee, saith the LORD. Then the LORD put forth His hand, and touched my mouth; and the LORD said unto me: Behold, I have put My words in thy mouth; See, I have this day set thee over the nations and over the kingdoms, to root out and to pull down, and to destroy and to overthrow; to build, and to plant.”

An initial review of these verses indicates a resistance by Yirmiyahu to accepting the role as prophet due to his age. Rashi, however, offers an entirely different view of this back and forth. He explains that the role for Yirmiyahu was designed way back during the time of Moshe. The Torah explains that a prophet will rise from amongst the Jews who will be “like you”, which Rashi understands to mean like Moshe. Thus, Moshe gave tochacha, and so too would Yirmiyahu. Additionally, Moshe’s prophecy extended over forty years; Yirmiyahu’s prophecy would cover this same amount of time. Yirmiyahu responds that he is in fact a young lad. In this context, according to Rashi, Yirmiyahu was referring to his “resume”. The greatest of all prophets began his tochacha close to his death. Moshe had accomplished numerous miraculous feats prior to his admonishing of the Jewish people, including taking them out of Egypt, splitting the sea, bringing the Torah, and so on. Now, at the end of his life, with his list of accomplishments backing him up, he proceeds to engage in reproof. Yirmiyahu asks God, what exactly have I accomplished? I am at the beginning of my service as a prophet, and now I am to deliver tochacha to the Jewish people? 

Sounds like a fair question. God’s response does not seem to be an answer at all. As we see above, God “touches” Yirmiyahu’s mouth, placing words within his mouth. How is this supposed to answer the concerns raised by this prophet? 

Going back to the first analogy between Moshe and Yirmiyahu, there is another troubling aspect to Rashi’s explanation. In comparing anyone to Moshe, one would expect more essential features of Moshe’s personality or achievements to be at the forefront. Instead, we see two seemingly superficial aspects – that Moshe admonished the people and was a prophet for forty years. There were other great people prior to Yirmiyahu who, through prophecy, admonished the Jews. Furthermore, what is so significant about forty years? Again, this seems to be a completely accidental aspect to Moshe’s prophecy. 

When we look at the tochacha given by Moshe to the nation (found throughout Sefer Devarim), there is something beyond the fact that the greatest prophet was delivering these ideas. Moshe was the first to be the vehicle for rebuke for the entire Jewish nation. Never before had a person been entrusted with such a task. As such, his reproof serves as the prototype for all future tochacha. The analogy therefore is noting that Yirmiyahu’s tochacha would follow the model set forth by Moshe. In terms of the second part of the analogy, what is the significance of forty years? There are times in Jewish history when a prophet steps forward to deal with a crisis or some other crucial event taking place. His prophecy therefore is tied to that moment in time. Other times, a prophet delivers his message for a short period, until his mission is complete. Moshe, though, was neither of these. He was a prophet for an entire generation, taking the Jewish people who left Egypt through the desert for 40 years. His impact (obviously) was critical in forging the identity of the nation. Yirmiyahu would be this type of prophet. He would stand and deliver the messages of God through three different kings, through an entire generation of the Jewish people. His prophecy would impact the Jewish nation in a profound way, a different quality of prophecy and tochacha.

Yirmiyahu responds to this with a very rational argument. As his prophecy was one following the model established with Moshe, both in content and in generational impact, it would make sense to follow the process as much as possible. Therefore, when looking at Moshe, we see him delivering admonishments at the end of his life. His resume was replete with miraculous events. Why should Yirmiyahu begin in a different manner? Wouldn’t this be in direct contrast to the way Moshe’s prophecy was established?

As we mentioned above, God does not directly answer his question. Presumably, one can infer from this that miraculous accomplishments are not necessary for this type of prophecy, and therefore secondary to the process established with Moshe. However, one could ask, why not? It would seem Yirmiyahu may have been more “successful” had he entered into the scene a well-known prophet. It could be that miraculous accomplishments as the pre-condition for rebuke is not objectively beneficial, but is something evaluated based on the situation. A prophet who performs miracles indeed helps validate his stature as a man of God, and therefore delivering God’s messages contains a quality of authenticity the people seek. At the same time, the miracles can become the focal point of the prophet, as people look to deify the prophet, rather than heed the important ideas he is bringing to them. When rebuking serves to strengthen the nation, to ensure they do not slip, the miraculous events merely function to validate. When rebuking serves to bring to light the present defective state of the Jewish people, where they have thrown to the side the derech Hashem, the miraculous resume may be a detriment. The message must be the center of attention, without distraction. God’s response to Yirmiyahu, then, is telling him this concept. His prophecy was to be different than Moshe’s. The validation that emerges through the miraculous would not play a role in this prophecy. He would “simply” be delivering the message of God, and the tochacha would be clear. 

We cannot begin to imagine the challenge facing Yirmiyahu in accepting this mission from God, as his entire prophecy was to be defined as one of tochacha. His words would not be characterized by comfort or pleasantries, or visions of happiness. In this first chapter of Yirmiyahu, the first of the three readings dealing with tochacha, we are see how his prophecy was to be established. We also see how his tochacha was to impact the Jewish people in a profound way, an impact we can appreciate even today.