To understand what led the people of Israel to abandon the Tora and deserved the destruction of the First Temple, we must go back to the time of King Menashe. Menashe reigned in Yehuda (Judea, the Jewish state in those days) for 55 years (687-643 BCE). It was the longest reign, and somehow, the worst of all. In his quest to make peace with the powerful Assyrian Empire, Menashe transformed Yehudah into an Assyrian province in every way. He imported the Assyrian gods and their worship, and completely uprooted the Tora and its observance. For two generations Jews abandoned HaShem and Jewish practice. The Bet-haMiqdash was used for the worship of idols, and the Cohanim who refused to serve idols were expelled. The jewish judges, famous for their sense of fairness, were assimilated and they no longer judged with the law of the Tora but with the Assyrian justice, which always gave the reason to the one that had more money or more power. After Menashe, his son Amon became the king. He was as bad, or worse, than his father, but at least he reigned for a short time: two years.
Yoshiyahu succeeded Amon and reigned from 640 to 610 BCE. He implemented a religious revolution to return and follow HaShem. Yoshiyahu’s story is fascinating. In his time, while doing certain renovations in the building of the Bet haMiqdash, a hidden Sefer Tora was found. After more than 60 years of total religious abandonment King Yoshiyahu read the Tora for the first time in his life. Yoshiyahu was moved and decided to return to serve HaShem. And so it began a process of national Teshuba, which was partially successful.
This is where Yirmiyahu the prophet enters the scene. He tried by all means to persuade people to return to religious observance.
We will now see some illustrations of his prophecy.
In chapter 10 Yirmiyahu says:
“Do not follow the example of other nations, do not be frightened by the signs of heaven (= astrology), as those nations do. The cults of these peoples is vanity. They cut a tree in the forest, a sculptor shapes the wood with his chisel, they adorn it with silver and gold, they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it does not fall… these idols seem like scarecrows in a field of melons, they cannot speak, and they need to carried because they cannot walk… do not be afraid of them, they cannot make bad or good. HaShem is the true God, the living God, the eternal King …
In Chapter 17 of his book, we see Yirmiyahu trying to persuade the people to return to observe the Shabbat. The Yehudim were so assimilated that for them the Sabbath was a regular business day. The Assyrians, who were very good traders, contributed to this assimilation taunting those Jews who did not work on Shabbat, accusing them of being lazy. HaShem instructed Yirmiyahu to stand at the entrance of the market on Shabbat, and tell the people:
“inhabitants of Jerusalem who come through these gates, hear the word of HaShem … on Shabbat, and for the sake of your lives, do not load your goods, do not carry your merchandise through the gates Jerusalem … do not do any work on this day. Consecrate the Shabbat, as I commanded your ancestors … “
For Yirmiyahu it was very clear that the abandonment of religious observance was also responsible for the corruption of justice, especially for the lack of protection for the poor, the widows, the orphans. There is a phrase repeated over and over again in the prophecies of Yirmiyahu: yedi’at HaShem, “knowing HaShem.” To Yirmiyahu knowing HaShem means “imitating HaShem”, the ultimate expression of Jewish spirituality. But how do you imitate HaShem? HaShem is the protector of orphans and widows, He practices hesed, kindness with the needy, and frees the oppressed, and He wants the Jewish People to “know Him”, i.e., to imitate His behavior. This message is repeated dozens of times in the book of Yirmiyahu. In Chapter 9 we can see a very brief example: “Thus says HaShem, the wise should not boast of his wisdom, nor the strong of his strength or the rich of his wealth. Let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding and the knowledge of Me, that I am HaShem, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,“
To be continued…