Tuesday, January 19th, 2021

Haftarah Parshat Bo: Great Minds Don’t Always Think Alike by Gidon Rothstein

January 5, 2011 by  
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Jeremiah 46;13-28

The haftarah we read this week records the words of God spoken to Yirmiyahu “when Nevuchadnezzar the king of Bavel came to smite Egypt.”  That seems to mean that this prophecy occurred relatively soon after the prophecy from Yehezkel that we read last week.  Apparently, Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of Egypt inspired both prophets, living hundreds of miles apart, Yehezkel in Bavel and Yirmiyahu still in Israel.

That fact alone raises the question of how naturalistically we view prophecy.  Some Jewish thinkers saw prophecy as mostly a function of the prophet’s personal perfection.  For such views—Maimonides seems close to this one—if a person achieves the requisite personal perfections and God does not choose to intervene to interrupt the flow of prophecy, prophecy comes almost automatically.  While a metaphysical event, this understanding sees prophecy as part of the natural makeup of the world—God is always communicating in some way, and those who become worthy of it will receive such communications.

Even so, it is clear both that such people cannot always attain this level—they can’t prophesy on demand—and that there is a personal element, in that they receive those aspects of God’s messages for the world for which they are ready.  For people who understand the workings of prophecy this way, our two haftarot suggest that both Ezekiel and Jeremiah were so moved by Bavel’s conquest of Egypt as to have a prophetic vision.  As we will note in a moment, their foci differed, but it does suggest that this was a momentous occasion.

The Other Option: God-driven Prophecy

Others see prophecy as mostly God-driven.  For them, many great people who were of a stature to achieve prophecy did not, simply because God did not “choose” to communicate with them, for whatever reason—perhaps there was no need, perhaps the generation was not worthy.  These thinkers have to accept that prophets must meet a minimal standard to achieve regular interaction with God, but still see the central factor in whether a person becomes a prophet as being a function of God’s decisions.

For that group of thinkers, it would seem that God chose to communicate with two different prophets about the conquest of Egypt, with slightly different messages, raising the question of why God would not simply give the whole prophecy to one of them.  One possibility, it seems to me, is that each prophet was serving a different Jewish community, and this event was significant enough that God wanted both major communities to hear God’s perspective without delay. 

Another option is that God recognized that complex messages are difficult to absorb, both by prophets and by people.  Instead of trying to layer a prophecy to Yehezkel or Yirmiyahu with multiple messages, perhaps God chose to split up the prophecies, two clear messages, each with its own focus, being easier to understand than one complicated one.

Either way, the two prophecies do show how repercussive an event the conquest of Egypt was, world-shaking, reflecting a major change in the fabric of God’s relationship with the world.  We saw some of what that was about last week, but Yirmiyahu will help us flesh it out further.

I note also that, as selections read in parallel to our Torah readings (the Exodus, the Egyptian failure to understand the need to listen to God), the haftarot seem perfectly sensible, in their original context, they fit in less well.  Yehezkel is a prophet already in exile, Yirmiyahu one who is tasked with overseeing and accompanying the Jews’ descent into destruction of the Temple and exile.  Yet each is told to pause, as it were, to note Egypt’s mistakes and their consequences.  At a most basic level, it reminds us that for hundreds of years, what happened to Egypt was of pressing concern to any God-focused person, since Egypt—from the Exodus through then—had a lasting role as a vehicle through which God repeatedly demonstrated His supremacy.

One Voice, Two Messages

For all that their prophecies reflect the words of the One True God—whose Unity means that the messages must somehow come together into one whole—Yehezkel and Yirmiyahu present slightly different messages.  Last week’s haftarah focused on Egypt’s overweening view of herself and the comeuppance headed her way.  Nebuchadnezzar as the vehicle of that destruction was only mentioned briefly at the end, his reward for destroying Tyre.  For Yehezkel, the lesson in these events is that  God strikes down those who deny or ignore Him, such as Egypt and Tyre, and rewards those who serve as God’s agent in so doing.

Yirmiyahu focuses instead on Egypt’s experience of conquest, on her once having been filled with power and grace, and it all being taken away and sent into exile.  To me, it is also striking that we include the next two small sections of the book, assurances to the Jews that God will not abandon them, will redeem them from afar, will not visit upon them the kind of full destruction Egypt and other nations will.

Where You Stand Depends On Where You Sit

I wonder whether the different foci relates to where the two prophets were living. For Yehezkel, already in Bavel, events in Egypt were less directly impactful; the kingdom might be excited about them, but speaking to Jews living in a foreign land, they might have been interesting mostly for what they said about how God was running the world on a large scale, less urgent or directly important on the personal level.

For Yirmiyahu, though, the fall of Egypt was a significant step towards the Destruction itself, taking away one of the political and military allies some Jews had relied on.  He elsewhere also mentions that the Jews repeatedly turned to Egypt for assistance with attackers, protests how Jews of the eighth through fifth centuries saw Egypt as a source of salvation, forgetting that they were, rather, an ancient enemy.  For Yirmiyahu, their defeat drives home a very practical point about allies and who the Jews should turn to for protection, more than some philosophical ideas about world control.

The Whole Message May Take More than One Sitting

Seeing the two messages, we can perhaps understand better why God would separate the prophecies.  Egypt challenged Jews’ relationship to God in two ways: as a world power whose attitudes about its power were in opposition to the claims of monotheism (as we saw last week), but also as a political ally, whose promises of assistance misled many Jews into forgetting that our salvation always comes from God, whatever form it may take. 

These two qualities show the value in each prophet’s message, in particular for the audience who might first hear it.  In Bavel, where they had lost their political autonomy, Egypt’s role as an ally was almost irrelevant.  For them, the fate of Egypt was of more theoretical interest, as a question of where and how God’s rule would be revealed.

In the Land of Israel, the defeat of Egypt dashed many actual hopes and brought the destruction of the commonwealth and the Temple one step closer.  Yirmiyahu’s listeners were, likely, more personally distressed by the event.  Egypt’s loss, for them, might inspire complete despair (hence the reminder that we Jews need not fear, in the long term, because God is with us). 

At the same time as the Jews of Israel would be more emotionally involved in the defeat, their closeness might blind them to the broader implications, to what the decline and fall of a reigning superpower was supposed to teach them (and us) about where true and lasting power resides.  If Yirmiyahu showed the people how to view the trees, Yehezkel reminds us of the forest, of the cosmic and historic significance of Egypt’s defeat.

Hence the two haftarot give us both immediate and general perspective of Egypt, thus also enriching our understanding of the Exodus, redemption, and its multiple meanings for Jewish history.  Shabbat Shalom.

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