In the haftarah on the second day of Rosh Hashana -Jeremiah 31:2-20 - we enter Jeremiah's complex universe of exile and its travails. Yet we only read half of a 40 verse chapter. As a result, we miss out on verses that seem a clear fit for the season, like this one: "For I will be their God and they will be my people" (31:33) or "For I will forgive their iniquities, and remember their sins no more" (31:34). Clearly the sages of old picked this text and parsed it with a specific goal in mind, namely that we absorb certain prophetic lessons.
Rabbi Binny Lau, in his wonderful book Jeremiah: The Fate of a Prophet contends that Jeremiah believed it was time for the divided nation of the Jews - Judah and Samaria - to come together, the children of Rachel and Leah to be re-united. To accomplish this he must bring the Northern tribes, represented by Ephraim, back into the fold. Rabbi Lau depicts Jeremiah as a diplomat of sorts who shuttled between the two places in his attempt to fix the breech. "Like a professional mediator conducting political negotiations, flitting back and forth between the parties, Jeremiah tries to present each one with what it wants to hear, what it stands to gain."
In our chapter, we focus on the Northern tribes. Jeremiah wanted to entice these tribes back so he engages in a three-pronged seduction: the appeal of affection, happiness and nostalgia:
"And with a great love I have loved you, so I have drawn you close to Me tenderly. I will rebuild you, My maiden Israel, and you will be built; you will again play your tambourine and go out and dance with joy. You will again pant and enjoy the fruit. For the day will come when watchmen will shout from the hills of Ephraim, 'Come let us go up to Zion, to the Lord, our God'" (31:2-5)
If you come back, you will return to our romance, to innocence, to fiscal security. Most importantly, if you return, you will remove the distance that has set in between the people and their God. In order to accomplish this, Jeremiah recalled a favoritism for Ephraim and called him a treasured son. He could never get away with saying the same thing in Yehuda. Such a memory would only cause additional strife, but to Ephraim, it is a welcome tease, as the prophet recalled the intensity of love and high regard Ephraim once enjoyed. Wouldn't Ephraim, Jeremiah agues, want to experience all of these feelings again?
Jeremiah also mentioned Ephraim's weeping grandmother, Rachel. If nostalgia fails, try guilt. Look at your grandmother crying on the border, waiting for you to come back. These tears produce self-reflection, and Jeremiah conjured Ephraim's response. "Chastise me, and I will be chastised, like an untrained calf; turn me back, and I will return, for You, Lord, are my God" (31:18). In Hosea, Ephraim is called a trained calf, but here Jeremiah calls him an untrained calf (10:11). The trained calf is a precocious image. In the metaphor, a young and arrogant calf thinks he can handle a harness on his own. Jeremiah wanted to emphasize community, that we cannot live alone, that we bear responsibility collectively, that we experience joy and grief together. He tried to weaken Ephraim's hard shell by making him into a calf that is unsteady on his feet, who is open to guidance, to chastisement, to the petition of the prophet.
By creating the picture of a desirable future, Jeremiah began with a grand dream of God's love, of Israel's influence over the nations, of a people finally reunited and able to heal the wounds of fracture. But to achieve these lofty goals, those who seem impenetrable have to crack open. The promise of geographic return can only work with the emotional and spiritual desire to return. In his JPS commentary, scholar Michael Fishbane also alerts us to one of the most touching repeated words in this haftarah. It appears four times in these twenty verse, and it is a word of only three Hebrew letters: O-D, again. We read it in verses four and five, in twelve and twenty. Again you will take up timbrels...Again you will plant vineyards...They shall never languish again...My thoughts will dwell on him (Ephraim) again...
Jeremiah reminds us that life and love go through cycles of intimacy and distance. In times of distance, we cannot imagine that there ever was affection and joy. In times of heady romance, we can never imagine despair and enmity. Jeremiah uses the word "od" to remind Ephraim that he is in a low part of a cycle that can once again turn but only if he is ready to return, if he wants the picture that Jeremiah created for him.
Now perhaps it is more clear why Jeremiah 31 is particularly appropriate for Rosh Hashana. Jewish time works in a spiral, a cycle that brings us back each year through holidays and seasons that demand different emotions. As we enter the Elul and Tishrei cycle, we may become aware of a gnawing distance, of being unprepared, of feeling unworthy. We may have Ephraim's hard and impenetrable shell and need the moving prayers of these days to crack us open. We may experience, nationally, a sense of our fractured existence as a people and need to remind ourselves of the obligation of togetherness. We may be far away when God beckons us to come closer. In that closeness, we will dance, we will raise our instruments, we will experience joy. We will celebrate.
And we will do all of this together. Again.