Is Ephraim A Dear Son To Me?

At the conclusion of the Haftarah on the second day of Rosh HaShanah, we read the verse, “Is Ephraim a dear son to me? Is he a darling child? For whenever I speak of him, I remember him still; therefore my inward parts are moved for him, I will surely have compassion on him, says the Lord” (Jeremiah 31:19).

Who is Ephraim? He is a symbol of the Kingdom of Israel, which may, perhaps, be called “the State of Israel” of those days. This state was much larger than the neighboring State of Judaea, and at times, a rather significant military and political force. It had a deeply corrupt political system, in which kings were constantly deposed by generals, and it was also corrupt in its international politics, as well as in the social and personal spheres. The prophets had mostly harsh things to say about this state and its inhabitants (see, for example, Hosea 7:1-10).

Yet that “State of Israel” was by no means a secular state. In its own way, it was a religious, even a Jewish, state. For alongside imported idolatries, it also had its own, Jewish idolatry: the golden calves (I Kings, 12) – a religion which, incidentally, was created not out of an inner religious awakening, but out of a strong political desire to detach the States of Israel and Judaea from each other.

Opposite the State of Israel was the smaller State of Judaea, which may be termed “the state of the religious,” and which included Jerusalem and the Temple. The State of Judaea, too, was a corrupt state, one whose inhabitants were no better than their Israeli brethren (e.g., II Kings, 16).

Between these two states, Israel and Judaea, there were many feuds; mostly skirmishes, but sometimes real wars. In one famous war, the Kingdom of Israel won a decisive battle and took many captives – which, however, it very soon released (II Chronicles, 28); and why? Because, after all, they were all Jews.

Nevertheless the rift, which started out for political reasons, eventually became internalized. And so, after the collapse of the ancient State of Israel, King Hezekiah of Judaea extended an invitation to the remnants of the Israeli population to re-join Judaea; but was met with scorn (II Chronicles 30:1-10). If put in modern slang, Ephraim’s response was: “They want me to come to their Temple in Jerusalem! What do they think I am, a frumie?” – and they did not come.

All this happened in the distant past. And what about the present? There is no point in idealizing; this land has always had stones of iron, people of brass (see Deuteronomy 8:9): a harsh land, a difficult state.

But in the past few years, a new phenomenon has arisen: the legitimacy of hatred. Mutual hatred among Jews has almost become a fashionable attitude. This hatred cuts through all sectors, without even seeking self-justification; it is based on the others being, by definition, bad. There is no longer a need to call each other bad names; one’s very title – “settler,” “haredi,” “leftist” – is an insult. Words become foul, and people become defiled and loathsome in one another’s eyes.

It is this that I am trying to fight; surely, not on my own, but also not with much company either. It is as if gigantic waves of history were coming to sever all ties – blood ties, memory ties – and create separate units that operate against each other, being so nourished by mutual hatred. People on all sides say: “What have I to do with them? We have nothing in common! Let’s eliminate them.” This is much more than a rift: it is the feeling that the others are expendable.

Surely, this rift has not yet actually happened. From time to time, declarations (both sincere and insincere) are made about the need for unity. The wars and the hostility that surrounds us, too, create a ring of blood and fire that welds us together, mainly in times of calamity. And, despite all the differences, people still speak to each other, do business together, even marry each other.

But alongside all of that, hostility and hatred keep growing, and above all, the alienation. There is an increasing tendency to create ghettos: a Haredi ghetto, a national-religious ghetto, a Sephardi ghetto, a Russian ghetto, a secular ghetto, a socialist ghetto. And in each one of these ghettos, people reinforce each other’s faith and lifestyles, and create reservoirs estrangement from, and hatred towards, everyone else: “They” are dangerous, ignorant, and corrupt; and “they,” the residents of the other ghettos, are out there for one purpose only: to conquer us, to obliterate us.

Now let us go back to the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah speaks after the great downfall of Judaea. He knows his people inside out, and he is not a rabbi, nor even a TV reporter: he is a prophet, and with this authority of a prophet, he chastises his people most harshly. Yet there is one thing that neither he, nor any other prophet, ever does: he does not, for a single moment, give up on the existence of the Jewish people – including those parts of it that he fights.

This is part of the mystery and the message of prophecy. The prophet knows full well who Ephraim is. He knows everything that is written in Ephraim’s newspapers, and all about Ephraim’s TV shows. He knows what transpires in Ephraim’s cabarets, and he hears Ephraim’s dirty jokes. He even knows exactly when and where Ephraim eats shrimp.

But given all that, he concludes by saying: “Is Ephraim a dear son to me? Is he a darling child? For whenever I speak of him,” – whatever and wherever he may be – “I remember him still; therefore my inward parts are moved for him, I will surely have compassion on him, says the Lord.”