The haftarah for Tisha B’Av is taken from Jeremiah 8:13-9:23. It begins with a description of chaos and the enemy’s advent. We hear the voice of the people seeking refuge in fortified city and the voice of God ordaining their affliction. From verse 18 the text shifts to the first person singular. According to most commentators, it is the prophet himself speaking: “Would that my head were water and my eye a fountain of tears that I might weep day and night for the dead of my people (8:23).”
The next verse continues: “Would I were a wayfarer’s inn in the desert, that I might abandon my people and go from them for they are all adulterers, an assembly of traitors etc.” Why does the prophet wish to separate himself from the Jewish people? One reason, offered by commentators, is that he cannot bear to see their suffering. Offhand this reason is supported by the previous verses in which he laments the inexhaustibleness of his grief.
However, if we look at the prophet’s wish in connection with the following verses, it appears that he is disgusted by their sinfulness. His desire to flee is not necessarily a rejection of the people, but it is surely a rejection of their corrupt society. He does not want to dwell in a community of deception.
Offhand these two themes are in conflict—is the prophet driven by compassion or by indignant judgment? In fact the two motives co-exist. Sorrow and alienation together characterize the experience of moral and spiritual disappointment in those we love. The prophet weeps uncontrollably for the pain of his people; at the same time, his grief is exacerbated by the recognition of their unfaithfulness and he is driven to recoil from their company. His first instinct is to pray for them and mourn with them. But in chapter 7:16 God has told him not to pray for them, an injunction that is repeated in 11:14 and slightly differently in 15:1. It is precisely this conflict that defines Jeremiah’s spiritual suffering in his relation to the people, on the one hand, and to God, on the other hand.
Later, in chapters 11-12 and 14-15 among others, the conflict is complicated by the persecution the prophet endures at the hands of the people whose pain is his pain and whose betrayal of God is manifested in their hostility to His messenger. But this stage of personal adversity is not yet articulated in our haftarah.
Malbim’s poetic analysis discerns an additional layer of meaning in the image of the desert inn. On his reading, the prophet not only wants to flee to the desert but he wants to embody his place of exile—he wants to be the inn. This, he says, presents an image of self-sufficiency. The individual becomes his own lonely place, independent of his society. Whether or not this is the sense of the text, Malbim here captures the psychological truth that along with the two themes of sorrow and indignation, an individual in Jeremiah’s situation may well yearn to detach himself entirely from the burden of other people.
In trying to understand Jeremiah’s experience we should also consider its lessons for us, especially on days dedicated to mourning and self-examination. There is the religious breakdown of the Jewish people in our age, the failures of omission and commission, the mediocrity and bad faith—and I do not except the Orthodox world from the indictment. There are the enemies of our people, both those ready to kill and those devoted to besmirching. We do not feel compassion or the pain of alienation from God as the navi did, and we hardly can claim his righteousness. Yet even we are tempted to wish we were somewhere else, where we would not have to feel the afflictions of our people, where we could escape the ostracism of our powerful and sophisticated adversaries, where, in the privacy and intimacy of our life with God, we can totally dissociate ourselves from the inconvenience and burden of belonging to the people of Israel and to the community committed to His service.
Unlike popular religion, Tanakh does not avoid grappling with the suffering and complexity of authentic human existence. In our day, that means mourning for the hurban with Jeremiah and confronting the unbearable pain of our past and present, both that of persecution and isolation and that of our moral and religious failings. It also means keeping always before us the conclusion of the haftarah: “Let not the clever glory in his wisdom or the mighty in his might, or the wealthy in his riches, but to glory in this: to understand and know Me, for I am God who does lovingkindness and judgment and righteousness in the land, for these things I desire.”