This week’s Torah portion, Massei, is from Numbers 33.1 – 36.13[i] and the Haftarah reading is from Jeremiah 2.4 – 28 and 4.1 – 2. The Torah portion summarizes the forty-two stops on the journey from Sinai to the plains of Moab, across from the site of Israel’s eventual entrance into the Promised Land, the boundaries of the Land and the existence of forty-eight Levitical cities and of six cities of refuge. Finally, the last section of the Torah portion recounts Zelophehad’s daughters being required to marry within their tribe to secure the ancestral inheritance.
The Haftarah continues in the Book of Jeremiah and is the second of the three weeks mourning or the “haftarot of affliction” which fall between the 17th of Tammuz to the 9th of Av. The portion begins with a dialogue between the LORD and Israel over His care for Israel and Israel’s continual complaint that they perceived His care as never being quite enough. Sadly, in Jeremiah’s time, Israel was not aware of the Pesach song, Dayenu (דַּיֵּנוּ). Chabad’s Haftarah in a Nutshell points out that as the LORD reminded Israel of His kindness and care “they repaid kindness with disloyalty. ‘For My people have committed two evils; they have forsaken Me, the spring of living waters, [and furthermore, this was in order] to dig for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns that do not hold water.’”[ii] (Jeremiah 2.13)
This is not the first mention of the “spring of living waters.” In Song of Songs, which the Sages understood as describing the love relationship between ADONAI and Israel, the LORD mentions a private place, a locked garden where there is a “spring of living water.” (Song of Songs 4.15) Later, it is recorded in the Besorah of John that
On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Yeshua stood up and cried out loudly, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. Whoever believes in Me, as the Scripture says, ‘out of his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’” (John 7.37-38)
Living water is the symbol of the life giving essence that flows from the very presence of the Creator and is available for all those who seek it. (Zechariah 14.8; John 4.10; Revelation 7.17) But note the LORD’s charge against Israel in Jeremiah 2.13, not only did they forsake or reject the “living water” He provided, but in their arrogance, they built cisterns, cracked from their onset, that would not hold water. In other words, they sought after “life” in manners that were doomed to failure even before they begun.
Yaacov may have had this charge in mind when he wrote to the Messianic believers in the Diaspora,
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.” Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. What is your life? For you are a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.” But now you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. Therefore, whoever knows the right thing to do and does not do it—for him it is sin. (James 4.13-17)
Instead of depending on the grace and care of the LORD, Israel chose to go in an opposite direction. In the same manner, Yaacov is encouraging his readers, as well as us today, to depend on the LORD and not to follow our own thoughts and plans. It is not that the LORD does not want us to have our own plans and ideas, but rather we should always align those plans with the leading of the Ruach HaKodesh. In Mishlei we read, “The heart of man plans his course, but Adonai directs his steps.” (Proverbs 16.9) This is the idea expressed in Yaccov’s words, “Therefore, whoever knows the right thing to do and does not do it—for him it is sin.” If we are trusting in our own plans, in the works of our hands then we will walk headlong into sin. But if we trust in the LORD and His guidance, then He will “direct our steps.” The Psalmist reminds us,
From ADONAI a man’s steps are made firm, when He delights in his way. Though he stumble, he will not fall headlong, for ADONAI is holding his hand. (Psalm 37.23-24)
An important aspect for the Psalmist is the realization that at times man will stumble, but if he continues to hold fast to the LORD’s hand he will not “fall headlong.” Stumbling is not the problem, letting go of the LORD’s hand and walking our own way, in our own strength and imagination is the problem; and in that we will surely fall.
So as not to end on a negative, judgmental note, Sephardic tradition ends this Haftarah in Jeremiah 4.1-2. If Israel makes the choice to return to ADONAI and put aside her detestable idols, then “The nations will bless themselves in Him and in Him they will glory.” (Jeremiah 4.2b) This promise eludes to the original promise the LORD made to Abraham, “…and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” (Genesis 12.3b) Michael Fishbane notes, “The theme is thus a renewal of national destiny, promised here as a renewal of origins and blessing.”[iii] With renewal of national destiny and promised blessings for the nations, the springs of living waters once more will flow in accordance with the plans and promises of the LORD. Then eventually, the words of the Ruach through John will be fully realized;
For the Lamb in the midst of the throne shall shepherd them [Israel and the Nations who come to Him] and guide them to springs of living water, and God shall wipe away every tear from their eyes. (Revelation 7.17)
[i] Unless otherwise noted, all Scriptures are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.
[iii] Fishbane, Michael. The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot (English and Hebrew Edition). The Jewish Publication Society, 2002. p195