January 11, 2003
This week’s haftarah, like the parasha, is directed against Egypt. The historical circumstances have changed over the many years which separate the two accounts, but the element of Egyptian oppression of the Jewish people remains the constant factor which links them. Jeremiah’s message serves as a warning to the Egyptians of their upcoming doom at the hands of the Babylonians – those same Babylonians who conquered the nation of Judea because of the feeble support offered to the Judeans by their Egyptian allies. Egypt’s fate is sealed, according to Jeremiah, as compensation for its ill-treatment of the Jews. All that remains for the prophet is to describe its downfall. That description follows, verse after verse. Among them is this curious metaphor: “She [Egypt] shall rustle away like a snake as they [the Babylonians] come marching in force…” (Jeremiah 46:22)
Rabbi Menachem Bula, a 20th century Israeli commentator, seems to capture the pshat (plain) meaning of this difficult verse: “The sound of Egypt”, which was previously described as an “uproar heard at great distance”, crawls slowly and quietly now like a snake because of the onslaught of the Babylonians” (see Daat Mikra) Egypt, which was once great, will be brought down by the Babylonians.
The comparison made in this verse between the Egyptian kingdom and a snake, apparently caught the attention of the sages who used it to give a midrashic interpretation to a law found in the Mishnah: “It is taught in the Mishnah: Even if a king greets a person [while praying the Amidah], s/he should not answer him; and even if a snake is wound around his heel, a person should not break off his prayer. (Mishnah Berachot 5:1) Why did the sages [in this Mishnah] choose to associate the dangers of a snake with that of a king? Rabbi Shimon ben Pazi said: As it is written: ‘Egypt shall rustle away like a snake’(verse 22); Just as a snake hisses and kills so too the kingdom of Egypt hisses and then kills for they imprison innocent people and then whisper false charges to a judge in order to have them killed. Another interpretation: Why did the Holy One Blessed equate the Kingdom of Egypt with a snake? Just as the ways of a snake are crooked (dishonest) so too the ways of the kingdom of Egypt are crooked. This explains why the Holy One Blessed be He said to Moses: ‘Just as the snake is crooked so too Pharoah is crooked. Whenever Pharoah’s behavior becomes crooked, tell Aaron to use the staff [which turned into a snake] against Pharoah to punish him for his crookedness. (Adapted from Exodus Rabbah 9:3)
This midrash interprets the Mishnah not as advice on how serious a person should be in prayer. Rather, it uses it, together with the verse from the haftarah, to describe a Jew’s relationship with God in facing evil. There will be times when Jews are faced by great and disconcerting evil. This evil will not always be transparent. It may at times seem deceivingly innocent. We must have the confidence and courage that God is with us and will not break off His relationship with us. God will give us the strength and insight to discern that which is crooked and stand up to all the threats which face us.
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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