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Be like Jeremiah and seek the truth

Be like Jeremiah and seek the truth

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Of all the major prophets, Jeremiah is perhaps the most loved and feared.

In perhaps all too many ways, Jeremiah reminds us of ourselves. He is guilt ridden and tragic. No one paid him the heed or the attention that he believed was his due and history has shown he deserved, and yet somehow he touches our souls and reminds us that no one, even the smartest of us, is perfect or without flaws.

Hebrew scriptures teach us that it was not easy to be a prophet. Prophets were rarely if ever heeded, and they tended to see themselves more as failures rather than as successes. Classical Hebrew literature is perhaps unique in that, of all the ancient literatures, it devotes an entire genre to men and women who told truth to power and were willing to state not what was popular but rather what was true. Known in Hebrew as navee, these men and women were the social scientists or the political commentators of their day.

Addressing society's social ills and noting people's flaws is not a method to win popularity. The niveem (plural of navee) were not popular, having to accept the wrath of citizens and government officials. Despite their lack of credibility, their words speak to us across the millennia and shine as beacons of light revealing corruption and prejudice. Even today, there are only a few nations in the world with the level of freedom of expression as that of ancient (or modern) Israel.

Perhaps we in the western nations love Jeremiah because he was a believer to the very depths of his soul in human equality and dignity. Jeremiah did not necessarily see himself as special. Rather, he taught that every man and woman has the capacity to question and think for him or herself. From Jeremiah's perspective, governments, no matter who was in power, were merely subservient to human logic and independent thought. It is for this reason that in Chapter 16:16 Jeremiah states: "Stand on the roadways and see," Jeremiah tells them, "and inquire of the paths of old which way is the good." In other words, question what you are told or read; think for yourselves, and do not accept political spin!

These are words that most of us say we want to live by, but in reality do not practice. All too many of us are prepared to allow others to think for us. We rarely question the intellectual pablum that the media feed us, and even in academia there is all too much "political correctness" that clouds people's thoughts with a particular given mind set. Jeremiah would be shocked by the lack of freedom of speech found in today's universities and ironically in the media.

Jeremiah would have opposed this "standardized thought." He derided those who silenced the opposition, and he would have been disgusted at those who shout down others because they disagree with his or her viewpoint. Instead, Jeremiah would have cried out demanding that we each seek the truth and refrain from slogans and seek out empirical evidence. From Jeremiah's perspective, we have the obligation to inquire and to seek out the facts, holding ourselves responsible for what occurs or does not occur in a society.

Like anyone who chooses to fight the establishment, Jeremiah was not a happy prophet. He wrote during the times of the destruction of the first Temple, at the time the Jewish people's greatest calamity. Jeremiah warned about the dangers of Babylonia, but no one chose to hear his words. He alone went into the street and saw the social problems for himself. Rather than accepting the party line he tried to rally the people and failed.

Despite Jeremiah's failures, he left us with hope. Reading Jeremiah's work millennia after he wrote it, we see that despite our failures, a time will come when healing takes place. In the case of Jeremiah, he reminds the people that God would restore the Jewish people to their land. Thus, Jeremiah writes "But fear not thou, O Jacob My servant, neither be dismayed, O Israel; for, lo, I will save thee from afar, and thy seed from the land of their captivity; and Jacob shall again be quiet and at ease, and none shall make him afraid" (46:27).

Jeremiah was fearless. Unlike so many politicians from both the past and the present, he worried less about spinning the truth than stating it; he worried less about being popular than about being right.

Jeremiah has a great deal to teach us. He reminds us that a society is only as strong as the moral character of the people who inhabit its land. Perhaps Jeremiah's most important question is: Are we smart enough to know when to stop chastising each other and find ways to consul each other in a way that leaves the other person with dignity and a sense of belonging? Is not this question still relevant today?

• Peter Tarlow is the rabbi emeritus at Texas A&M Hillel Foundation in College Station. He directs the Center for Latino-Jewish Relations and teaches at the Texas A&M College of Medicine.

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