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Two Haftarot, Two Themes

Parshat Bo

The parsha of Bo is quite exceptional. It includes the story of the final three plagues, the “surrender” of the Egyptians to Hashem’s demand, the very first mitzvah commanded to all of Israel and, of course, Yetziat Mitzrayim, the Exodus itself. Even if we put aside the mitzvot of tefillin, of the Korban Pesach—both the one observed in Egypt and that which would be sacrificed in the future—the sanctification of the first-born, the holiday of Pesach and more, it is one of the most outstanding single parshiyot that we read during the year. One would imagine, therefore, that our rabbis would find the fitting haftarah selection to match the dramatic events that are related in the parsha or the important mitzvot included therein.

But they did not.

The selection from Sefer Yirmiyahu (46: 14-28) is almost a repetition of the haftarah we read last week. As we have mentioned before, both Yirmiyahu and Yechezkel prophesied at the same time and their prophecies regarding the collapse of the Egyptian empire are what we read both on last Shabbat and now, on this one. Would not a perek from the books of the nevi’im that told of Hashem saving Israel from a harsh enemy be a fitting choice for the haftarah of this parsha? Or, perhaps, one of the several chapters that tell of Israel’s observance of Pesach in Eretz Yisrael could have also been chosen by Chazal. What did our rabbanim see in this perek that convinced them that it was the proper haftarah for Parshat Bo?

HaRav Moshe Lichtenstein suggests that, indeed, there is a clear difference between the two haftarot that are read one week after the other and a clear reason why both are read. The first seven plagues brought upon Egypt, those described in Parshat Va’era, had one overriding goal. The first time Moshe confronted Pharaoh with God’s demand to release the Jew, Pharaoh responded with the words: “Lo yada’ti et Hashem,” “I do not know Hashem.” And so God sends down supernatural wonders to prove to the Egyptian king Who God was. The purpose of these first seven plagues was an educational/religious one: to teach Who Hashem was. To learn of His power, of His abilities and of His mastery over all. It is for that reason that throughout the parsha we read the repetitive phrase “lema’an teida,” so that you should know Who God is. The plagues described in this parsha were directed primarily toward Pharaoh and his advisers—not the people. The people were “inconvenienced,” bothered and troubled—but none died as a result of the plagues.

The three plagues described in Parshat Bo, however, were aimed at the population itself. These plagues were meant to be a punishment for all Egyptians who were equally to blame for the enslavement of Israel. The three plagues gave the populace a “taste” of death. Pharaoh referred to the plague of locusts as “hamavet hazeh”—this “death.” It destroyed all growing things—unequaled by any such locust before—and it ruined the very economy of Egypt. And all suffered from it. The plague of darkness that followed immobilized the entire population and “buried” them in a blackness that was almost tangible. And, of course, the final plague brought death into the homes of every citizen.

Understanding this, we now see how the themes of the respective haftarot reflect those of their parshiyot.

In last week’s haftarah, the navi Yechezkel repeats the reason for Egypt’s defeat by pointing to Pharaoh, who saw himself as a god. Yechezkel clearly states the purpose of the defeat: “v’yad’u kol yoshvei Mitzrayim KI ANI HASHEM”—“all of Egypt will know that I AM HASHEM.” He describes Egypt’s defeat as a political/military loss that would teach Pharaoh that it is only God Who directs world events.

In this week’s haftarah, Yirmiyahu describes Babylonia’s invasion of Egypt and the utter destruction of the land as a punishment from God. There is no mention of proving that Hashem is the only power on earth—just a description of the complete devastation that the Egyptians will suffer.

But why must the people suffer for the sins of their leaders?

Rav Lichtenstein quotes his grandfather, Rav Soloveitchik, zt”l, who stated that no tyrant could be successful without the cooperation of his citizenry. We live at a time that the lesson of the Rav speaks powerfully to us. We have seen the result of a cooperative population in the despicable and inhuman acts that were perpetrated against us. For us, therefore, the haftarah leaves a lasting impression.

There is a need for educating a society that does not recognize Divine imperatives.

But there is also a need for punishment of a society that lacks any moral conscience.


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

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