MATTOT-MAS’EI: THE FIRST TWO HAFTAROT OF AFFLICTION
During the three-weeks from 17th Tammuz, when the Babylonians breached the walls of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, until 9th Av – Tishah B’Av – when they razed the Temple, there are three special Haftarah readings known as the ‘Three Haftarot of Affliction’. From the perspective of biblical theology, since God was the sole source of reward and punishment, the destruction of Jerusalem was, ultimately, His work. And so, in the first of these passages (Jeremiah 1-2:3), the fiery prophet, who prophesied for forty years at the end of the seventh century BCE, proclaims in the name of the Eternal: ‘I will deliver My verdict against them for all their evil deeds, for they have forsaken Me, and sacrificed to other gods, and prostrated themselves before the work of their own hands’ (1:16).
Mattot and Mas’ei are often read together in one week, and as it happens, Haftarat Mas’ei is a direct continuation of Haftarat Mattot (Jeremiah 2:4-28; 3:4). So, where did the Sages choose to end Haftarat Mattot? Always concerned to ensure that every haftarah concluded on a hopeful note, they opted for: ‘Israel is holy to the Eternal, the first fruit of God’s harvest. All who eat it shall bear their guilt; ill shall befall them’ (2:3). More audaciously, when it came to identifying a fitting conclusion for Haftarat Mas’ei, the Sages skipped twelve verses from 2:28 to 3:4, and then a further twenty-one, to end at 4:1-2: ‘If you will return, O, Israel, says the Eternal, return to me…’ As we read the haftarah each week, we are reminded that each one has a homiletical purpose: to challenge, and also to reassure.