How and Why we Sin

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

The ancient Cycladic culture flourished in the islands of the Aegean Sea from c. 3300 to 1100 BCE

Jeremiah chapter 2 outlines man’s sins. It is appropriate that we read this chapter (Haftoras Massai) during the nine days leading up to Tisha B’Av, as this period is a time of reflection on our flaws, and repentance. 

Jeremiah delivers God’s rebuke:

What wrong did your fathers find in Me that they abandoned Me and went after delusion, and they were deluded? They never asked themselves, “Where is the Lord Who brought us up from the land of Egypt, Who led us through the wilderness, a land of deserts and pits…where no human being had dwelt?”  I brought you to this country of farm land to enjoy its fruit and its bounty. But you came and defiled My land… The priests never asked “Where is the Lord?” The guardians of the Torah ignored Me…and the prophets prophesied by Baal and followed what can do no good.

This first rebuke identifies man's fantasy as his flaw. God said man followed “delusion.” There was no flaw in God, as reality testified to His greatness by taking the Jews out from Egypt, traversing them sustained in desolate places, and bringing them into a lush land of Israel. Thus, reality demanded the Jews not veer from God who fully provided. Therefore the cause of abandoning God was not God’s reality, but man’s fantasy. But how did this fantasy work?

Man seeks sensuality which an abstract God does not offer. Man also sees the nations’ idols and their religious rites. These tangible views catered to the Jews’ infantile recollections of parents: physical protectors. Jews of the greatest status sinned. An abstract God does not offer the emotional security provided by physical idols. The Jews caved to infantile insecurities instead of using their minds and following reality. The infantile insecurity compelling people to replace the parent is seen in man’s creation of Jesus, and idols formed as humans. 

Just cross over to the isles of the Kittim and look, send to Kedar and observe carefully; see if anything like this has ever happened: Has any nation exchanged its gods? But they are not gods. But My people has exchanged its glory for what can do no good. 

Jeremiah rebukes the Jews for an exchange never witnessed in other nations; they exchanged the true God with idols. He says to “ponder this exchange well.” What is his point? 

Jeremiah stresses that the Jews followed fantasy, “they are not gods.” Other nations never veered from their traditions, to exchange their traditional gods with emptiness. The other nations operated with some methodology: they viewed authority (their ancestors) as intending good and benefit for their offspring. This is the basis for the transmission of traditions from one generation to the next: offspring assume their ancestors bequeath only goodness. (This is rejected in Jeremiah 16:19: “Nations shall come from the ends of the earth and say, “Our fathers bequeathed to us utter delusions, things that are futile and worthless.”) So the nations operated with some value system; they following traditions. They also would not accept the idolatry of other nations since there was no force of ancestral authority. And furthermore, even their simple minds saw no cause-and-effect relationship with alien idols, so they did not accept alien idols. But the Jews abandoned what was proven in reality, namely God, and followed after idols that were not of their fathers’ tradition (Jer. 44:3) and that also presented no validation of powers. Jeremiah now identifies these very 2 errors:

My people have done a twofold wrong: they have forsaken Me, the fount of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, which cannot even hold water.

God equates Himself to that which gives life, “a fount of living water.” And he equates fantasy to that which is incapable of any goodness , “broken cisterns that can't hold water.” Jeremiah beautifully identifies and reiterates two flaws: leaving reality and following fantasy.

Though you wash with natron And use much lye, your guilt is ingrained before Me —declares the Lord God. How can you say, “I am not defiled, I have not gone after the Baalim”? Look at your deeds in the Valley, consider what you have done! Like a lustful she-camel, Restlessly running about, or like a wild ass used to the desert, snuffing the wind in her eagerness, whose passion none can restrain, none that seek her need grow weary. In her season, they’ll find her!

Save your foot from going bare, and your throat from thirst. But you say, “It is no use. No, I love the strangers, and after them I must go.”

The metaphor of a lustful she-camel and the statement about passion underlines the Jews flaw as emanating from instinctual drives. Additionally, Jeremiah identifies the desire to follow others as he says, “I love the strangers.” For millennia the Jews succumbed to the need for approval from other nations. In Egypt, while the 12 sons of Jacob were still alive, the Jews did not succumb to Egyptian idolatry. But once those formidable authority figures passed on, the Jews accepted Egyptian idolatry, which is truly a desire to assimilate and gain approval from Egyptians. The Prophet teaches this was the sin which earned them 210 years of enslavement. Moses too saw this as the Jews’ flaw when he said, “Now the matter is known to me” (Exod. 2:14). Rashi comments: “[Moses said] I have been puzzled: how has Israel sinned more than all the seventy nations, that they should be oppressed by this crushing servitude? But now I see that they deserve this (Exodus Rabbah 1:30).” Moses was commenting on how his killing the Egyptian to save the Jew had become known, for before he killed him, Moses looked all around and there was no one present. But Moses deduced that the only way his killing became known was through the Jew he saved (Rabbi Israel Chait). For there was no one else present but Moses, the saved Jew and the Egyptian, who was now dead. Moses realized the Jew, although saved by Moses, felt greater loyalty to Egypt and inform on Moses. Moses now understood the poor character trait of the Jews that earned them servitude. That poor character trait was the need for approval from other nations. Egypt’s enslavement of the Jews (by God’s will), an enslavement by those whom Israel previously revered as an authority, is God’s intentional method of causing the Jews to despise Egypt’s harsh labor and abandon their unconditional respect for that Egyptian authority. (God’s punishments intend to correct the sinner.)

They said to wood, “You are my father,” to stone, “You gave birth to me.”  While to Me they turned their backs and not their faces. But in their hour of calamity they cry, “Arise and save us!” And where are those gods you made for yourself? Let them arise and save you, if they can, in your hour of calamity. For your gods have become, O Judah, as many as your towns!

God’s rebuke through Jeremiah's words is that reality is the test of what is true. As stated above, the Jews abandoned reality, the God who took them out of Egypt, Who traversed them through desolate plains and brought them into Israel. The Jews were so full of fantasy that they “talked” to inanimate stone and called it “father,” and felt the idol birthed them and gave them life. God echoes Elijah by saying that the Jews cried out to their idols: “Elijah mocked them, saying, ‘Shout louder! After all, he is a god’” (I Kings 18:27) But God identifies their idols’ silence to invalidate them. 

Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands. They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but cannot see;

they have ears, but cannot hear, noses, but cannot smell; they have hands, but cannot touch, feet, but cannot walk; they can make no sound in their throats. Those who fashion them, all who trust in them, shall become like them. (Psalms 115:4-8).

King David criticizes those who create idols as sharing with the idol’s dumbness. Again we see that man's sin is abandoning reality and follow in fantasy.

As God has not rebuilt the temple, the Jewish nation still follows fantasy. This is expressed in the belief of powers outside of God such as the evil eye. Jews also believe red strings on their hands—although destroyed with a single match—can protect a person from all harm. The fundamental that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked has been rejected outright, as amulets take the place of God. People think mezuza has a power to save. Jews pray to the dead despite God's hiding of Moses’ grave to avoid such atrocities. And these superstitions are accepted one generation to the next, as people seek peer approval instead of truth, a flaw Moses understood to be why the Jewish nation deserved servitude.