January 31, 2004
The experience of the children of Israel in Egypt left an indelible mark on the collective soul of the Jewish people. Suffering incurred at the hands of oppressive despots and the consequent inhospitable environment became the badge of the Jewish experience throughout the ages. Yet even the ultimate redemption from Egypt left its mark on the people. The redemptive process was also tumultuous, creating upheaval in their lives. They developed a deep sense of insecurity, never being quite sure of whether their “faith” would ultimately come to fruition. This sense of insecurity became immured in the hearts of every Jew and, at times, has proven overwhelming. It is a constant underlying theme of Jeremiah’s message to his fellow Israelite exiles in Egypt, who after having fled from the Babylonian onslaught on Judea, find Egypt confronted by this very same enemy.
In this week’s haftarah, Jeremiah’s primary message is to the Egyptians. He warns them and their mercenaries that their end is near, but the consequences of Egypt’s punishment leaves the Israelites insecure. What does the conquest of Egypt and the dispersal of its population mean for them? Does Egypt’s dispersal also have negative implications for Israel or in modern parlance, what does it mean for the Jews? What was Jeremiah’s answer to this perennial Jewish dilemma? “But you should fear not, Jacob, my servant, nor be dismayed, Israel, for I will save you from afar and your seed from their land of captivity. And Jacob shall be quiet and at ease. Fear not, Jacob, My servant, said the Lord, For I am with you. For I will destroy the nation where I have driven you but I will not destroy you. And I will correct you in measure but I will not utterly destroy you.” (Jeremiah 46:27-28)
Jeremiah’s message was meant to comfort his contemporary audience. They were not to be destroyed along with their enemies. Rather they were to be restored to their homes while their enemies went into exile. Rabbi David Kimche, the 13th century Provencal commentator, however, saw in this message comfort for future generations in the face of Israel’s ever present enemies: “When retribution comes upon Israel’s enemies, you [Israel] should not fear, for you are not like them. Even if they return to their lands from exile, they will not dwell in peace. In the end they will cease to be nations but as for you [Israel], your name will exist to the end of time like the heavens over the earth.” Rabbi Yitchak Abrabanel, the 15th century Spanish interpreter and statesman who lived through exile from both Portugal and Spain, examined what appears to be the peshat (plain meaning of the text) which asserted that Jeremiah was speaking to a contemporary audience and concluded from clues in the text that Jeremiah was speaking to Jews like himself who lived during the thousands of years of exile. This message was important to him because he lived with the constant anxiety and insecurity born of exile. It was crucial to know that God did not abandon him and that ultimately redemption and restoration would come. If Abrabanel could see hope in this message despite his desperate situation, so should we.