Haftorah: Yirmitahu / Jeremiah 46:13-28
January , 2022/5 Shevat 5782
Last week in the haftorah for parashat VaEira, the prophet Ezekiel described the defeat of Egypt at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia. In 605 BCE, Egypt, in an alliance with Assyria, was defeated at Carchemish (Turkey) by Nebuchadnezzar who was then a young military commander of the Babylonian army. Egypt’s defeat at Carchemish marked the end of Assyrian hegemony and the ascendancy of Babylon. The prophet Jeremiah, who witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem several years later (586 BCE) and left the land of Israel together with the exiles, described the battle of Carchemish and Egypt’s defeat (Jeremiah 46:1-12). Following Jeremiah’s description of Egypt’s defeat is a prophecy about Egypt. That prophecy forms the text of this week’s haftorah for parashat Bo, since this Torah portion describes the final three, devastating plagues culminating with the death of the firstborn. After several introductory verses noting the destruction of Egypt, the haftorah can be divided into two sections, joined by a transitional phrase.
Jeremiah describes Egypt as beautiful, contrasting Egypt’s beauty with the vulgarity of the violent forces that will destroy her:
Equip yourself for exile, fair Egypt, you who dwell secure! For Noph shall become a waste, desolate, without inhabitants. Egypt is a handsome heifer—A gadfly is coming from the north. The mercenaries, too, are in her midst. They are like stall-fed calves; they too shall turn tail, flee as one, and make no stand. Their day of disaster is upon them, the hour of their doom. She shall rustle away like a snake as they come marching in force; they shall come against her with axes, like hewers of wood. They shall cut down her forest —declares God— though it cannot be measured; for they are more numerous than locusts, and cannot be counted. Fair Egypt shall be shamed, handed over to the people of the north. The God of Hosts, the God of Israel, has said: I will inflict punishment on Amon (Amon was the god of No. see, Nachum 3:8) of No and on Pharaoh—on Egypt, her gods, and her kings—on Pharaoh and all who rely on him. I will deliver them into the hands of those who seek to kill them, into the hands of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon and into the hands of his subjects. (19-26)
Rashi notes that the phrase, “handsome heifer,” eglah yefefiah means that the Egyptian kingdom was beautiful. Rabbi Don ISaac Abrabanel highlights this contrast. There is a tragic poignancy to Egypt’s demise. “Despite her beauty,” wrote the Abrabanel, “Egypt was decimated, defoliated, cut down.” Indeed, Jeremiah describes Egypt’s downfall in terms of the destruction of the natural world in its most vicious manifestation. Rabbi David Kimchi explains that the “gadfly” represents an agent of cutting down. Egypt, a fattened cow, will have no way to survive. Jeremiah references the plague of locusts, declaring that this wave of destruction will be worse. Jeremiah is describing a replay of the final three plagues. The Chida, Rabbi Hayyim David Azulai, noted the significance of the enemy of Egypt, Babylonia, coming from the north in Jeremiah’s prophecy. “The north wind is a symbol of destruction. The wind that comes from the north challenges Pharaoh who made himself into a god. Pharaoh declared himself to be a god, and Hashem created a wind/spiritual force from the north to cut him down.”
In Jeremiah’s description of the destruction of Egypt, I am struck by how many allusions there are to qualities shared with the Jewish people’s relationship to Hashem. Egypt’s corruption, arrogance, and misguided political alliances will ultimately destroy her beauty. Egypt’s natural resources will perish. The country’s forests will be cut down. She will be physically and culturally and politically defoliated. Egypt became a fattened cow. A symbol of the Egyptian pantheon of gods, the fattened cow here seems to represent apathy, fatigue, weakness, the absence of inner vitality, vision and perspective. Egypt will simply be swept away, her people exiled and the land wasted. And yet, in a transitional phrase, Jeremiah stated, But afterward she shall be inhabited again as in former days, declares the LORD. (26) This is an astounding proclamation, especially since Jeremiah then turns his attention to the fate and destiny of the Jewish people. God has God’s own set of expectations of Egypt, some other “covenantal” relationship as it were. God cares about Egypt and her civilization, and therefore wants the people to return to their land and rebuild their society.
Meanwhile, Israel shall return from exile in Babylonia. It is as if Jeremiah were describing a cyclical view of history such that while some nations are suffering exile, others are celebrating return:
But you, Have no fear, My servant Jacob, Be not dismayed, O Israel! I will deliver you from far away, your people from their land of captivity; and Yaakov again shall have calm and quiet, with none to trouble him. But you, have no fear, My servant Yaakov —declares Hashem— for I am with you. I will make an end of all the nations among which I have banished you, but I will not make an end of you! I will not leave you unpunished, but I will chastise you in measure. (27-28)
The Abrabanel notes that Jeremiah repeated the final statements to the Jewish people at the end of this prophecy, with some minor changes. The Abrabanel suggests a very beautiful idea. Jeremiah directed his first pronouncement of return to the exiles of Babylonia. They were not that geographically distant from the land of Israel. However, continued the Abrabanel, what about us? What about the Jewish people who have been exiled from the land of Israel at great distances? What about those whose return was not actualized after only forty short years? What about those who have lived in exile for generations? Do not fear, declared Jeremiah a second time, for you, too, shall someday return.
The Abrabanel’s words lead me back to the complete prophecy of Jeremiah to both Egypt and Israel, to the interplay between exile and return, and the related interplay between the physical and the spiritual. Egypt was exiled despite its beauty, its sophistication, its achievements, its wealth, its luxuries. Perhaps Egypt was exiled precisely because the people lost perspective about those blessings, forgot their humility, became entitled and arrogant, and then cruel and oppressive. To me this suggests that spiritually, Egyptian civilization was already in exile in their own land; all that remained was to cleanse the physical environment of the abuses.
The people would not be forgotten, however, since God cares about them. They simply have to find their way back. This same message applies to the Jewish people. Our lives as a people are deepest and richest when our spiritual and physical realities are aligned, when we are living in the land of Israel as a people of humility, gratitude, and compassion. Life in the land, in a civilization of beauty, sophistication, culture, wealth, influence and power, can become spiritually and morally bankrupt. When that occurs, the people are already living an estranged life, a life alienated from feeling grounded, stable, secure, safe, healthy, and connected to the rhythms of the natural world around them. That level of alienation leads to estrangement from others and from the natural environment, and, accordingly, leads to that nation’s physical destruction. At the same time, a people can live in physical exile but cultivate sensibilities of empathy, gratitude and humility. They can live in an awareness of God’s created world of beauty, and not become exploitative and entitled. Jeremiah’s hope is that we work towards a full humanity, people alive in their home, living lives informed by an awareness of God’s creation, with humility and gratitude.