Matot-Masei: Broken Cisterns, Living Waters

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Matot/Masei

This week’s haftarah is a continuation, more or less, of last week’s;
we’re in the second of the “Three Weeks” before Tisha B’Av, the
mournful commemoration day, and the prophetic texts continue their
“rebuke” of the people. (See last week’s commentary, linked below, for
more context.)

This week, I just want to look at one beautiful verse from the haftarah:

“For 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.” (Jeremiah 2:13)

The contrast is stark: a “broken cistern” is compared to the “Fount”
(or spring) of “mayim hayyim,” or “living water.”

The Hebrew for “broken cisterns” is a bit ambiguous; Hirsch would
translate it as something like “empty pits,” but in either case the
contrast is clear: the Israelites who have strayed from the covenant
are like somebody who has only an empty pit where their water should
be, whereas had they stayed true to their God, they would be like
people who had a constant spring of living water, which in the most
basic sense means fresh or drinkable water, as opposed to brackish or
muddy water. However, pay close attention to the doubling of language:
“hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns,” implies not just that the
people lack spiritual refreshment, but that their work has been flawed
from the start- they made “broken cisterns,” that is, wasted time and
energy on a misleading path.

This, too me, is a resonant image, because it suggests that any
spiritual or moral path or system that is not a “fountain of living
waters”- that is, a constant source of the deepest renewal- is a
“broken cistern,” or a waste of time. A cistern that leaks is no good
to us, and a spiritual path that doesn’t help us grow is a leak in our
lives! Too often, we chase after a feel-good spirituality which is
like candy: it’s great in the moment, but has no lasting effect. A
real “makor,” or wellspring, is something that lasts a lifetime,
calling us back and never running out of the capacity to renew and
inspire. A deep practice of study, prayer and conscious compassion is
just such a spiritual wellspring, and lucky for us, you can find such
a practice wherever an authentic Judaism is taught with love and
brought into open hearts.

Shabbat Shalom,


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