January 19, 2002
The suffering of the children of Israel at the hands of their Egyptian taskmasters reaches its climax in this week’s parashah. God has recognized their plight and is about to save them from Egyptian oppression. Redemption is near. Jeremiah’s message, in the haftarah, complements this story with its prophecy of God’s retribution against the Egyptians at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar. Jeremiah emphasizes the certainty of this coming event: “As I live- declares the King, whose name is the Lord of Hosts- As surely as Tabor is among the mountains and Carmel is by the sea, so shall this come to pass (yavo).” (Jeremiah 46:18)
This verse, which is a warning to the Egyptians, is interpreted a number of different ways. Rashi, whose explanation is based on Targum Jonathan, interprets the verse: “Just as it is certain that Tabor is set amongst the mountains and Carmel by the sea, so too is it a certainty that this thing will come upon the Egyptians.” A. Erhlich, the early 20th century German commentator, proposed that Jeremiah meant to emphasize the steepness of the slope of these two mountains, with the meaning that the Egyptians would be attacked suddenly. M. Segal, the 20th century Israeli scholar, notes the sheer height of these two mountains and argues that the attack against the Egyptians will be mighty and strong.
These scholars argued about the “peshat” or simple meaning of this verse. The Mechilta offers a midrashic interpretation of this verse which removes it from its original context and understands it as a description of an event that happened when God revealed the Torah at Sinai. This midrash interprets that it is not events that “will come to pass” but rather that the mountains will actually move! The Mechilta reads: “Another interpretation: ‘I am the Lord your God’. When the Holy One , blessed be He , stood up and said: ‘I am the Lord your God,’ the mountains trembled and the hills wavered, Tabor came from Beit Elim and Carmel from Aspamea (Spain?), as it is said, ‘As I live, said the King, Lord of Hosts, surely as Tabor among the mountains and Carmel by the sea would come (yavo)’ (Jeremiah 46:18). One mountain said: ‘I was called [by God].’ The other mountain said: ‘I, too, was called.’ But when they heard from God’s mouth: ‘Who brought you out of the land of Egypt,’ each one of the mountains stood in its place, and said: ‘He is only speaking with those He brought out from Egypt.’ (adapted from Mechilta d’Rabbi Ishmael Masechet Bachodesh Chapter 5)
The theophany at Mount Sinai (God’s appearance in the world) was such a dramatic event that mountains actually wanted to participate. According to this midrash, these two mountains were originally found outside the land of Israel. Their migration to the land of Israel was caused by the events at Sinai. This midrash served as the basis for the following statement of Rabbi Eleazar Ha-Kappar about the ultimate redemption: “The synagogues and houses of learning in Babylonia will in the time to come be planted in Eretz Israel, as it says, ‘For as Tabor among the mountains and as Carmel by the sea came.’ We can draw an inference from this verse: Just as Carmel and Tabor which came only on a single occasion to learn the Torah are now implanted in Eretz Israel, how much more so must the synagogues and houses of learning, where the Torah is read and expounded daily, find there way there. (adapted from Megillah 29a). This vision seems a bit quixotic but we have the ability to bring this redemptive vision of Israel as our spiritual center a little closer. The reality of this dream is in our hands.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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