An AMAIC Adaptation of:
Jeremiah Interpreted: A Rabbinic Analysis of the Prophet
Bryna Jocheved Levy
Women’s Institute for Torah Studies, Jerusalem
Womb to Tomb
The Rabbis began the Pesikta passage with a comparison between Job and Jeremiah. Both bewailed their birth as a result of the unbearable pain life forced them to endure. But, whereas Job is generally viewed as the epitome of suffering, the portrait of Jeremiah’s pathos presented in this midrash is perhaps even more painful. Job’s suffering is personal, and despite his protestations, he endures and is granted a second life. Jeremiah, in contrast, is unconsoled, and bewails the suffering which he is forced to unwillingly inflict upon those closest to him.
The textual springboard for the Pesikta is Jer 20:14-18, wherein Jeremiah fulminates about his ineluctable fate, using words unmatched in their harshness:
Accursed be the day that I was born! Let not the day be blessed when my mother bore me! Accursed be the man who brought my father the news and said, “A boy is born to you,” and gave him such joy! Let that man become like the cities which the Lord overthrew without relenting! Let him hear shrieks in the morning and battle shouts at noontide! Because he did not kill me before birth, so that my mother might be my grave, and her womb big [with me] for all time. Why did I ever issue from the womb to see misery and woe, to spend all my days in shame?
This image conflates the death wish with the healing and comfort offered by the mother’s womb. Such imagery is described by Freud as follows:
To some people the idea of being buried alive by mistake is the most uncanny thing of all. And yet psycho-analysis has taught us that this terrifying phantasy is only a transformation of another phantasy which had originally nothing terrifying about it at all, but was qualified by a certain lasciviousness — the phantasy, I mean, of intra-uterine existence.
The womb/tomb metaphor accentuates the analogy with Job, with which the midrash began. Job, too, speaks of returning to the womb when he is clearly talking about death: “He said, ‘Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord has given, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord’.” (Job 1:21). The irony in Jeremiah’s use of this metaphor, is, of course, that God has informed him that he has already been singled out for his mission in utero. Even staying in the womb will not save him from his excruciating destiny as the prophet of doom.
After the Storm, A Search for Comfort
The preceding midrashic homilies depict Jeremiah’s relationship with his city and people in the early stage of his career – when he labored at upbraiding the nation and warning them of the fate that awaited if they would not mend their evil ways. In Pesikta Rabbati 26:9, the character of Imma Zion appears once again, this time after her tragic fall. Jeremiah is now older and sated with tragedy; he finds no comfort in the fact that his predictions of disaster have come to pass. And so, his relationship with Mother Zion is different in this scene.
Jeremiah said, As I ascended the mountain to Jerusalem, I looked up and saw a woman sitting alone on the mountain top, wearing black garments, her hair disheveled, screaming, imploring someone to comfort her. I, too, screamed and asked: ‘Who will comfort me?’ I approached her and spoke to her. I said, ‘If you are a woman – speak to me; if you are a spirit – be off with you.’ She answered, ‘Don’t you recognize me? I am the woman who had seven children. Their father disappeared, and before I was able to cry over him, I was told that my house collapsed and killed my seven sons. I do not know for whom to mourn and tear out my hair.’” I responded, ‘You are no worse than Mother Zion who was reduced to grazing land for the beasts of the field.’ She said, ‘I am your Mother Zion; I am the mother of seven, as it says: “She who bore seven is forlorn” (Jer 15:9). [Pesikta Rabbati 26:9].
There are several notable similarities between this midrash and Jeremiah’s midrashic encounter with his mother the Sotah. Just like the Sotah was customarily dressed in black and her hair was disheveled, so too, this mysterious woman. He desperately seeks solace; how ironic to chance, unawares, upon a mother figure likely to afford it to him. Whereas in the initial passage Jeremiah does not recognize his mother until he uncovers her hair and looks at her, here, even with her hair uncovered, she is still unknown to him. In both midrashic texts, his obliviousness is pronounced. In this passage he gives it verbal expression, asking the woman whether or not she is a spirit or real. In fact, she is a spirit, of sorts: “I am your Mother Zion!”.
The irony, in Jeremiah’s case is that he was singled out in utero, cf. Is 49:1.
 Cf. 15:11, where Jeremiah’s mother alone is pitied: “Woe is me, my mother, that you ever bore me-a man of conflict and strife with all the land! I have not lent, and have not borrowed yet everyone curses me!”
Gerhard von Rad, “The Confessions of Jeremiah,” in L. Perdue and B. Kovacs, eds., A Prophet to the Nations (Indiana, 1984), p. 344: ” One can say with caution, which here should be the first commandment of the interpreter, that physical death per se does not increase suffering, rather it provides a release”. See also Alan Mintz, “The Rhetoric of Lamentations” Prooftexts 2 (1982), p. 3: “The serviceableness of the image of Jerusalem as an abandoned fallen woman lies in the precise register of pain it articulates. An image of death would have purveyed the false comfort of finality; the dead have finished with suffering and their agony can be evoked only in retrospect. The raped and defiled woman who survives, on the other hand, is a living witness to a pain that knows no release.”
Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny”, in J. Strachey and A. Freud,eds., The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud (London 1955), vol. 17, p. 244.
 Elsewhere Job counterposes womb and grave: “Why did You let me come out of the womb? Better had I expired before any eye saw me, had I been as though I never was, had I been carried from the womb to the grave” (Job 10:18-19). See also Job 3:10-12: “Why did I not die at birth, expire as I came forth from the womb? Why were there knees to receive me, or breast for me to suck?For now would I be lying in repose, asleep and at rest.”
 The mother/womb image to describe the tomb/death is movingly used in Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus) 40:1: “A great concern has God assigned, a heavy burden to the sons of men, from the day man comes forth from his mother’s womb until he returns to the Mother of all the living”.
 The image of the bereaved mother as personification of Zion has its source in Is 49:21, and is also used in the apocryphal book of Baruch 10:16. see Mintz (n. 26 above), pp. 8-9.
 Mishnah Sotah 1:5, 6; J. Heinemann, “A Homily on Jeremiah and the Fall of Jerusalem (Pesiqta Rabbati, Pisqa 26),” in Robert Polzin and Eugene Rothman, eds., The Biblical Mosaic: Changing Perspectives (Philadelphia, 1982), pp. 27-41.