Dov Lerea

Human arrogance can never defeat divine hope

Parashat VaEira
Haftorah: Yechezk’el/Ezekiel 28:25 – 29:21, December 31, 2021/27 Tevet 5782
The haftorah describes Ezekiel’s prophecy against Egypt during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II in the late 7th and early 6th centuries BCE. Ezekiel lived during the period of the exile from Jerusalem, and prophesied visions of return and the re-building of the Mikdash. The geopolitical events of that time period prior to Ezekiel’s prophecies revolved around the military aspirations of Babylon to create an empire across the Levant by defeating Egypt. Those events included the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the city’s population to Babylon in 586 BCE. However, the primary adversaries in the geopolitical tensions at that time were between Egypt and Babylonia.
Before ascending the throne, Nebuchadnezzar II, as commander of Babylonian forces, defeated Pharaoh Necho of Egypt at the battle of Carchemish, an ancient city in southern Turkey on the Syrian border today. This battle in 605 BCE proved decisive in the ascendancy of Babylonia as the governing power in the area. Egypt had formed an alliance with Assyria, while Babylonia allied with Persians and Medes. 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).
Nebuchadnezzar also contended with rebellion from Jerusalem, as well as a protracted campaign against the military force and naval influence of Tyre (Sidon). Babylonia, Egypt, and Tyre are the main players in this week’s haftorah from the Book of Ezekiel. Nebuchadnezzar’s empire had extended through the Levant, requiring payments of tribute. King Zedekiah of Jerusalem, against the advice of his counselors (including Jeremiah) had refused to continue paying tribute. He wrongly perceived Nebuchadnezzar’s forces as weakened by the ongoing campaigns against Egypt. (II Kings 25) That rebellion against Babylonia, as we well know, proved disastrous. Ezekiel, from exile, turned his vision towards Egypt and described Egypt’s fate in terms of God’s involvement in human history. This prophecy, projecting a theological interpretation of events, opens with the future resettlement of the Jewish people in the land of Israel:
Thus said the Lord GOD: When I have gathered the House of Israel from the peoples among which they have been dispersed, and have shown Myself holy through them in the sight of the nations, they shall settle on their own soil, which I gave to My servant Yaakov, and they shall dwell on it in security. They shall build houses and plant vineyards, and shall dwell on it in security, when I have meted out judgment against all those surrounding them who have denigrated them. And they shall know that I the LORD am their God. (Ezekiel 28:25-26)
The last phrase of these opening verses is critical: וְיָ֣דְע֔וּ כִּ֛י אֲנִ֥י יְהֹוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵיהֶֽם, so that these nations may know, become aware, that I am their God. This is the main goal of the plagues during Israel’s enslavement in Egypt so many generations earlier, described in this week’s parasha. Parashat Vaeira describes seven of the ten plagues. God is clear: the purpose of the makkot is to raise the consciousness of Egypt to acknowledge the Creator of the universe over the self-proclaimed human rule and arrogance of Pharaoh. (Shemot 7:5; 14:4) After this opening, Ezekiel proceeded to describe Egypt’s fate. According to Ezekiel, arrogance caused Egypt’s ultimate downfall. Pharaoh claimed to be divine, the creator of the Nile itself. As such, Ezekiel described Egypt as a giant fish and God as the fisherman. Ezekiel described Egypt’s defeat metaphorically as hooking that fish and hurling it from the waters into the desert, exposed and then eaten by beats scavenging for food. (Ezekiel 29:3-5) Immediately following this image, Ezekiel reiterated God’s goal of human consciousness:
Then all the inhabitants of Egypt shall know That I am the LORD. Because you were a staff of reed to the House of Israel: When they grasped you with the hand, you splintered, and wounded all their hands, and when they leaned on you, you broke, and make all their loins unsteady. (29:6-7)
These words convey the core of Ezekiel’s message to Egypt and project a biblical view of human history. Political leaders must have an awareness of the Creator of the world and see themselves as part of a shared humanity. Furthermore, the humility of such awareness would make them leaders of compassion and empathy. Instead, as Ezekiel described, the arrogance of the ancient Pharaoh caused Israel undue cruelty and suffering. Arrogance leads to cruelty, and ultimately to the demise of any civilization that ascends as a result of and perpetuates self-serving arrogance and destructive cruelty to other human beings and the environments that power exploits. It is not accidental that Ezekiel invokes the Nile and the desert. Not only was the Nile sacred to Egypt. It epitomizes the giving power of Egypt’s natural environment. Only the wild, uncultivated expanse of the desert can reshape the potential for a nation’s future–just as Israel had to journey through the wilderness from Egypt.
This is the main message of the haftorah: arrogance begets cruelty, violence, and then ultimately, destruction. However, there is another powerful image Ezekiel describes. Of Egypt’s future, he said:
For forty years I will make the land of Egypt the most desolate of desolate lands, and its cities shall be the most desolate of ruined cities. And I will scatter the Egyptians among the nations and disperse them throughout the countries. Further, thus said the Lord GOD: After a period of forty years I will gather the Egyptians from the peoples among whom they were dispersed. I will restore the fortunes of the Egyptians and bring them back to the land of their origin, the land of Pathros, and there they shall be a lowly kingdom….Assuredly, thus said the Lord GOD: I will give the land of Egypt to Nebuchadrezzar, king of Babylon. He shall carry off her wealth and take her spoil and seize her booty; and she shall be the recompense of his army. As the wage for which he labored, for what they did for Me, I give him the land of Egypt—declares the Lord GOD. (29:12-15;19-20)
The parallel to the historical experiences of the Jewish people is unmistakable. Egypt will experience exile. The people will be scattered as minority populations throughout the world. Then, after “40 years of wandering,” dejected and despised, they will return home. Furthermore, Babylonian functioned as an instrument of God’s will in breaking Egypt of its arrogance and cruelty. The function of exile is to re-sensitize the collective consciousness of a people, to force them to examine themselves and replace arrogance with humility. The purpose of exile is to enable a people to internalize the experience of living a disempowered life, living tenuously with a majority culture, precisely so that when they regain power over others, they will act out of the memory of exile with empathy and compassion.
The purpose of exile is to provoke the inner journey of human consciousness to regain a deeply felt respect for the Creator of the universe and to serve that Creator’s purpose to tend and care for the natural and political worlds. Finally, these words to Egypt imply that God has covenantal relationships and expectations of all nations. In that regard, Israel is not unique. God cared about Egypt, and had expectations of them and of Babylonia. While every people must learn their own nature and destiny, and interpret the meanings of their historical experiences, God’s hope for humanity rests on a deeply laid universalistic foundation that empowered civilizations will respect the dignity of all human beings, will live in awe of creation, and behave with a sense of reverence and respect for the Creator. That was God’s message to Egypt through the makkot, and again, generations later through Ezekiel and egypt’s defeat at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar. One wonders how the cycle of human power, arrogance, cruelty, enslavement and suffering, will ever be broken.
Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Dov
About the Author
Rabbi Dov Lerea is currently the Head of Judaic Studies at the Shefa School in NYC. He has served as the Dean and Mashgiach Ruchani at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, as the Director of Kivunim in Jerusalem, as the Dean of Judaic Studies of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, and as the Director of Education at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire. Rabbi Dov has semicha from both JTS and YU. He is married and is blessed with sons, daughters-in-law, and wonderful grandchildren. He loves cooking, biking, and trying to fix things by puttering around with tools.
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