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Toward Shabbat: Mattot-Mas’ei

I awoke on a recent Friday morning to a news report that sent me running to my computer to book a flight to Israel. For too many weeks I had signed on to airline websites only to seek refunds for canceled flights that I had booked months before the outbreak of COVID-19. What sent me to my screen that morning, much to my surprise, was a news report that a pharmaceutical company had reported success with an early phase trial for a COVID-19 vaccine.

With this glimmer of tangible hope for a successful vaccine, my immediate instinct was to book tickets for my wife and me to spend our Pesah, 2021 in Israel with our daughter, her husband, and five of our grandchildren who live in Jerusalem. A few months ago we had canceled our plans for what would have been our first Pesah in Israel. We were aiming to bring our entire immediate family together for a seder in our daughter’s new apartment overlooking the golden hills of Jerusalem, and now, months later, we were still feeling the lingering disappointment from the canceled trip.

There were two roundtrip tickets available close to Pesah at a reasonable price. I was about to hit the “purchase ticket” button, when my fear and more rational thinking kicked in. Israel was not yet admitting any non-Israeli citizens. I am over 70, and thus in a vulnerable age group. The odds were against an early phase trial resulting in an effective vaccine. I could not bring myself to hit the button to purchase the tickets.

I was about to confess my near folly to my wife when I remembered the prophet, Jeremiah, who is the author of this Shabbat’s Haftarah. We encounter Jeremiah this week as a prophet of rebuke who upbraids Israel for its faithlessness, as a consequence of which Jerusalem will be destroyed. However, as much as Jeremiah is a prophet of rebuke, he is also a prophet of hope. In a later chapter of the book that is also read as a Haftarah, we find Jeremiah confined to a prison In Jerusalem, having predicted the fall of the City to the Babylonians. Jeremiah’s bad news had upset Zedekiah, the king of Judah, who was attempting to put the best face on a dire situation, and had thus attempted to silence Jeremiah. Jeremiah learned in prison that his cousin, Hanamel, was being forced to sell a plot of land in Anathoth, a few miles from Jerusalem. If Jeremiah, as the closest relative, wouldn’t buy the land, it might be lost in perpetuity to the family.

By any rational measure this was a horrendous time for a real estate transaction. Babylonians were besieging the city, and land was essentially worthless. In fact, the Babylonians would soon conquer Jerusalem and occupy it for the ensuing 50 years. Nevertheless, Jeremiah weighed out 17 shekels of silver and bought an essentially worthless plot of land. He justified his purchase, “Houses, fields, vineyards shall be purchased again in this land.” (32:15). Jeremiah’s purchase made no sense financially, but it was a powerful statement to the inhabitants of Jerusalem that someday, after the end of the Babylonian invasion, they would return to their homes and reclaim their land. Normalcy would be restored.

Shabbat was drawing near, and I had to make a decision. If Jeremiah could spend 17 shekels, I could risk the airline penalties even if we were not able to go. If Jeremiah could buy a piece of land with no end in sight to the Babylonian occupation of Jerusalem, then I could plan a flight to Israel even if the odds were against an available vaccine nine months hence. Of course, it mattered whether we could actually make the trip to Jerusalem, but what mattered more that Friday was that booking the flight was an expression of hope in a future when life would be better.

I hit the button to purchase the tickets; Shabbat could begin.