The story of Jeremiah, the leading prophet at the end of the period of the first Temple, is one of intense personal and national pain. So tragic were his life and times, that they inspired the word jeremiad, meaning mournful complaints and lamentations. He never married, having been instructed by G-d not to build a family of his own in light of the impending destruction. His energies were rather focused on persuading the Jewish people to repent, an exercise in which he was painfully unsuccessful.
Jeremiah first began to prophesize in the years following the long reign of the idolatrous king Manasseh. He continued to do so for the rest of his life, cajoling the people to seek atonement. His later years coincided with the rise of Babylonia as a world power and its extended exile of the Jewish people. His messages are clearly marked with a conviction that Judah was under G-d’s judgment and that Babylon was His appointed messenger to exile the Jews.
His message stressed spiritual and moral improvement, not military prowess or political savvy. Jeremiah said that only repentance could save the people from destruction (see Jeremiah 9:22–23). When his message went left unheeded, he realized that destruction was inevitable. He thus counseled submission to Babylon, opposing any talk of revolt.
Such talk, of course, did little to enhance Jeremiah’s popularity amongst the Jewish people. Both the populace and the monarchs opposed him. He was later forbidden entrance to the Temple (Jeremiah, 36:5), and was even imprisoned. Throughout, Jeremiah displayed remarkable resilience and fortitude in his heavenly mission.
The people of his time grossly misunderstood his motives. He was perceived by many as a prophet of doom, who took pleasure in predicting pain and destruction. Of course, the exact opposite was true. Jeremiah wanted desperately for the Jews to heed his cry and to change their sinful ways. When his foreboding predictions did come to pass, he refused to indulge in personal vindication. Rather, he voluntarily escorted his exiled brethren as far as the Euphrates, and mourned their loss. Jeremiah is the author of Lamentations, which is read on the night of 9 Av.
After Jerusalem’s fall, the Babylonians allowed him to remain with the new governor Gedaliah at Mitzpah. Following Gedaliah’s murder, he was forcibly taken to Egypt by those who feared Babylonian reprisals. (Jeremiah, Chapters 40–43)
What is perhaps most fascinating about Jeremiah was his ability to inspire hope and religious observance even for those in exile. He taught that one must meet despair and overcome it, and make the best of adversity. He foretold that this Babylonian exile would last for only 70 years (Jeremiah 25:12; 29:10), after which the Jewish people would be allowed to return to their homeland. In the days prior to the Temple’s destruction, he purchased land for future settlement. As the exiles were brought into captivity, he encouraged them to set up markers for their eventual return, even though no exiles had ever returned in the past. It was he who coined the famous words of “od yishama… b’arei Yehuda” – “It will again be heard… in the cities of Judah (the sounds of rejoicing)” (Jeremiah 33:10–11), which inspire hope and joy.
Jeremiah taught the exiles that they were able to reach G-d even in their new state, far away from the Jewish homeland. (Jeremiah 29:7) G-d was too great to be restricted to the Temple alone.
A great historical irony is embodied in Jeremiah. His enemies met their terrible fate and have vanished from the scope of history. Jeremiah, as persecuted and denounced as he was during his lifetime, lives on in the hearts and prayers of the Jewish people.