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Haftarat Vaera: One of the Most Significant Challenges of Our Times by Gidon Rothstein

December 30, 2010 by  
Filed under New Posts

Yehezkel 28;25-29;21

This haftarah is a complex piece of writing, with many themes, but one of its central concerns is how and when nations should see world events as connected to the hand of God, a question that figures prominently in our times as well.

Many today instinctively recoil from the topic, since it is so widely abused.  Almost every time a calamity strikes the world, some religious leader, Jewish or not, confidently announces the exact, specific reason it happened.  Worse, those reasons often strike others as problematic, to say the least.  In reaction, many go to the opposite extreme, denying that we have any way of knowing when events in this world stem from God.

I believe the haftarah teaches us that that, too, is not a solution.  The main body of the text records God’s complaint that Egypt sees itself as all-powerful, God’s threat that Egypt will be fully destroyed, lie desolate for forty years, and then return to spend the rest of history in subservience to those around it. Egypt is called the “Great Alligator,” proud of its Nile as a source of its power.  In addition, the Midrash thinks the punishments promised to Egypt here parallel the Ten Plagues begun in the Torah reading.

In the parallel Torah reading, Moshe Rabbenu tries to convince the Egyptians they cannot hold on to the Jews against God’s Will; they ignored the message and bore the consequences.  Egypt in Yehezekel’s time repeats Paroh’s error, seeing itself as fully independent, all-powerful, god-like. An implicit issue raised by the haftarah is how nations will ever learn to submit to that Will. 

Punish Them Until They Learn

God seems to opt for repeated warnings and punishments.  When Egypt will be laid waste, it will show the survivors and surrounding nations the folly of ever thinking of oneself as all-powerful.  Forty years is a traditional time of reeducation—think of the Jews in the desert after the sin of the spies, which proved they could not shift their mindset from that of slaves to that of free devotees of God—so Egypt’s time of desolation would seem to be geared towards teaching them a lesson.

That last point is made even more strongly by a Midrash that says that those forty years will be repayment for the five years of famine the Egyptians avoided in the time of Joseph.  (Tradition has it that once Jacob came to Egypt, the famine ceased, after only two of the predicted seven years).

Since forty years is many more than five, I suspect the Midrash is making a thematic connection—in Joseph’s time, when the famine had been directly predicted and prepared for under his guidance, the five years would have fortified their understanding that God rules many world events.  At a later juncture, when the Egyptians have ignored all the various prophecies and been punished for that, they will need a fuller dose of re-education before they can return.

Failure Leaves a Mark Which We Might Hope Will Teach Others

Even then, having failed twice to react appropriately to God’s power, they will be doomed to subservience to other nations.  Lord Acton famously said that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, but God expects it to be used wisely, judiciously, and with humility.  Those who cannot will find their power taken away, never to return.

The introduction and conclusion to the haftarah flesh out the importance of trying to understand how and when world events can be traced back to God.  It opens with the concluding verses to an earlier prophecy, which tell of the Jews’ returning to their land, building homes, planting vineyards, and living securely.

There can be many reasons for a prophet to promise that, but the emphasis here is on the example it will set for other nations, which makes the prophet’s singling out vineyards worth pondering.  While it may simply reflect his time, I suspect that planting a vineyard is also seen as an inherently religious activity.  Aside from the mitsvot connected to agriculture and to wine, farming is one of those human endeavors most reliant on factors out of human control.

Indeed, Rambam thought all idol worship had its roots in farmers’ attempts to gain greater control of the supernatural factors that would affect their harvests.  (In defense of farmers, it is only in the last few hundred years that agricultural yields have been good enough to make food plentiful in most years in most parts of the world; until then, good years were good enough to keep everyone alive, and bad years were disastrous.  The temptation to seek any possible advantage in securing a better harvest must have been overwhelming).

World Leaders as Servants of God

The end of the haftarah points in the same direction.  God suddenly speaks of Nebuchadnezzar, who is seen as having done God’s work in destroying Tyre, despite the likelihood that he did that for his own reasons.  As part of that reward, God says that the Babylonian king will replace Egypt.  That reminds us that Egypt had a role to play in world history which, had it done so successfully, would have earned reward.  Its failure created the need for a replacement. 

Possibly, God envisions the world as always having one or two superpowers, entrusted with directing the course of world events, and, ideally, seeing their job as given to them by God, for Godly purposes.  Our haftarah shows us a superpower that instead became intoxicated with its power, leading to its eventual, but certain, downfall.

Nebuchadnezzar would follow that route as well, becoming too sure of his power, too confident of his security.  We are left to question whether we would do any better, but also how we differentiate those leaders who are instruments of the Divine Will from those who put themselves in opposition to it.  In this context, the verse from Proverbs, 21;1,פלגי מים לב מלך ביד ה’, like waves of water is the heart of a king in the Hands of God, tantalizes us with the suggestion that God limits the freewill of world leaders.  The verse does not clarify, however, how to distinguish when those leaders have their freewill and when they are being compelled to execute God’s plan for the world.

In concert with the Torah reading, the haftarah reminds us that political events, especially those of great import for the Jewish people, often have a component of Divine Providence.  The search for an exact definition of when that happens, as well as for a superpower that understands its job to be an extension of God’s impact on the world, that humbly and honestly seeks to do what God would want, continues.  Shabbat Shalom.

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