June 17, 2024
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Egypt’s Sins; Israel’s Mistakes

Parashat Va’era

In previous essays, I have pointed out that the prophetic messages found in the weekly haftarot can be better understood by taking note of the prophecies that preceded, and/or followed, those nevuot. This certainly is true of this week’s haftarah, a selection taken from 29th (and the end of 28th) chapters in Sefer Yechezkel. Although the prophecy focuses on the future collapse of the Egyptian Empire, it is only the last part of an entire section of Yechezkel’s prophecies that predict the collapse of Israel’s surrounding neighbors who were adversaries, and often oppressors, of the Israelite Kingdoms.

Starting from the 25th chapter of the book, we read these “predictions of doom,” frightening forecasts that are directed to the nations of Ammon, Moav, Edom, P’lishtim, Tzor and Tzidon. Rav Amnon Bazak makes note of the fact that these predictions are not set in chronological order, but rather, similar to other like-themed prophecies, are all included in this one section. Rav Bazak also explains the logic of why this section appears only after the painful descriptions of the horrific punishments that would be meted out to Israel, including the eventual destruction of the Bet HaMikdash and the Judean Kingdom. He suggests that the prophet feared that the Jews might see the dark prophecies of their exile as a desecration of Hashem’s name—i.e. chillul haShem—mistakenly believing that their defeat was “proof” of the power of the foreign “gods” over HaKadosh Baruch Hu, ch”v’sh. As a result, Yechezkel goes on to forecast the eventual collapse and disappearance of Israel’s antagonists as well, dispelling the false belief of many in the exiled nation. It is at this point, after the navi reviewed the destiny of these rivals, that he dedicates three separate chapters to the fate of Egypt—the first of which is the haftarah of Parashat Va’era.

Last week’s parsha focused upon Egypt’s oppression and enslavement of B’nai Yisrael and this week’s parsha concentrates on Hashem’s efforts to free His people and, at the same time, to punish the evildoers and teach them of God’s justice. Rav Bazak makes us aware of the fact that Yechezkel’s prophecy directed against Par’oh, was spoken on the 12th of Tevet in the reign of King Tzidkiyahu (29; 1) which marked a full year (and two days) after the Babylonians had laid siege to Yerushalayim. The harsh words directed against the Pharaoh (Par’oh “Hafra’ ”) were the result of his failure to keep the alliance he had made with Judea to help them repel the Babylonian onslaught.

The similarities between Egypt’s sins in Yechezkel’s time and their future punishments, are what connects the haftarah to the parsha. Egypt’s bravado and reliance on the Nile that we read in the haftarah, as well as Pharaoh’s boast that he, a “god,” had formed the Nile, mirrors the Torah story of Pharaoh’s boast that he did not “know” Hashem—and, therefore, had no reason to obey Him. The subsequent punishments that “plagued” Egypt were God’s response to Par’oh’s denial of Hashem, as the text repeatedly explains “so he/they shall know that I am Hashem.” Indeed, many of the plagues targeted the revered gods of Egypt: the Nile (blood and frogs), the animals (pestilence), the crops (locusts, hail) and the first-born. Chazal may have also seen in Yechezkel’s declaration that Hashem promised that Egypt would become “shemama,” a desolate land, for 40 years, as another connection to Israel’s experience, bringing to mind their 40 years in the desolate desert, a saga that began with Israel’s escape from Egypt.

In summation, the rabbinic decision to have this nevu’ah read on this specific parsha reflects our belief that Hashem remembers, rewards and punishes, even after many generations. Immoral behavior, passed on from generation to generation, mirrors a basic flaw in the belief of a corrupt culture. Only when that belief is abandoned will such behavior be permanently changed.

Indeed, the immorality and corruption that stains society will disappear only when civilization no longer condones it.


Rabbi Neil Winkler is the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel of Fort Lee, and now lives in Israel.

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