Rabbi David Walk
Growing up in the American Northeast, I always rooted for the North, whether it was an athletic event or the Civil War. The North always represented the good guys to me. Also, during the fight for Civil Rights during the late fifties and into the sixties, the south just appeared to me as the bad guys. Plus, they talk too slow. So, it was with great chagrin that I discovered that Jewish tradition seems to feel the exact opposite. The North represents evil and trouble, while the South tends to appear more benign. This idea appears many times in our Tanach, but is most forcefully and clearly expressed in this week's Haftorah.
According to Jewish tradition, we recite a Haftorah based upon that week's Torah reading until the three Shabbatot before Tisha B'av. From then until after the High Holidays, there are ten Haftorot which are connected to the season, rather than to the week's Torah topic. The first three are warnings of dire events, and the last seven are poetic expressions of comfort and consolation. That yearly cycle begins this week. The first up is the beginning of the book of Jeremiah, and describes his initiation as a prophet. It wasn't easy. He is told that he must inform the Jews of impending doom, namely the destruction of the southern
So, what's so bad about the North? Historically, disasters came from enemies who actually did attack from the North. In Isaiah's time the Assyrian Empire swarmed down from the north to destroy the
But our sages didn't discuss this issue from a geographic or historical perspective. They discussed a symbolic negativity of the North. The four Hebrew words for the compass directions are very descriptive. East is where the sun first shines and is called Mizrach, shines. West is where night falls and is called Ma'arav, evening. South is desert, and is called
There's another reason given for why the North is negative. In the ancient world maps weren't arranged with North at the top. East was at the top. People woke up in the morning and figured their day's travel direction by looking east, or orienting themselves by the rising sun. You get your orientation by facing the orient or east. Okay, so, when I look East, the North is on my left. We don't like the left side, because it represents judgment and trouble. The right side represents compassion; the left harsh justice. Our punishments, therefore, come out of the North. Isn't it ironic that in baseball and boxing, southpaws are lefties. In Judaism, they'd be northpaws. Apparently this is because baseball diamonds faced east so that the afternoon sun wouldn't be in the batter's eyes, therefore the pitcher is facing west, with his left hand on his south side. Now that's a cool piece of trivia.
There's one other approach which I saw for the first time recently, based on a statement in the book of Job. The verse states: Gold sparkles from the north (Job 37:22). The Northern climes tend to be the home of the wealthy countries. In our present time all members of the G8, or wealthiest eight countries on earth, are situated further North than
One last idea from the Magid of Mezeritch (Rav Dov Ber, 1700-1772). The North isn't evil; it's a challenge. The North, like its Hebrew name tzafon, represents important, hidden things. The hidden item is reverence for God, and it's buried in the heart of every human. The threats from the North are to remind us to mine this most precious commodity. The menace of the cold and mysterious can't harm us if we put our faith in God's protection. It's when we are enticed to succumb to the allure or power of these threats that we are imperiled.
So, I believe that the message of Jeremiah is to resist the dangers represented by northern attackers, and remember that our salvation comes though God, Torah and morality. When we learn that lesson, we have uncovered the golden truth.
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