January 15, 2005
Jeremiah and Ezekiel, the author of last week’s haftarah were prophetic contemporaries. Jeremiah prophesied in Judea and Ezekiel, after being exiled, prophesied in Babylonia. Both prophesied, among other things, about the confrontation between the two major powers of their day, Egypt and Babylonia. Both saw in Pharaoh and his promises to the Judean nation the seeds of Judea’s downfall and consequently, they saw in Nebuchadrezer, God’s agent for bringing about Pharaoh’s justly deserved downfall. Jeremiah was particularly incensed at Pharaoh’s lack of unreliability as an ally. This attitude is expressed in the following verse: “There they called Pharaoh, king of Egypt: Braggart who let the hour go by.” (Jeremiah 46:17 NJPS translation)
This translation is based on the punctuation established by the taamei hamikra (the musical cantillation) of this difficult verse. Rashi added flesh to this interpretation: “In battle [Egypt’s enemies] called out insultingly to Pharaoh: ‘Pharaoh, king of Egypt is [shaon] – empty noise, for he raised his voice in adulation of his military prowess.’ He designated a time to go to battle and did not go out. The time of the battle passed without event.” Rabbi David Kimche (Provance 12th century) changed the point of reference for this verse. He asserted that it is Pharaoh’s own countrymen who insulted him “They said: ‘Pharaoh is a king who makes a lot of noise [about war] but after setting a time for war with the Babylonian king, he let the opportunity pass because of his fear of Nebuchadrezer” Both of these commentaries share their ridicule for Pharaoh. He is unreliable and undependable and deserves his fate at the hands of Nebuchadrezer.
For the sages in the Talmud, however, this verse takes a different turn. It is used to prove that defendants in a court case must be summoned more than once to court if they fail to respond to the original summons before the court can rule them in contempt and punish them for not responding to the summons: “[How do we know that if a defendant fails to appear for the original summons that they must be summoned] time after time [since they might have been detained the first time]? For it is written: ‘They [as God’s agents] called out [a summons] to Pharaoh, the braggart, king of Egypt since he has let the appointed time go.’ (Jeremiah 36:17) (adapted from Moed Katan 16a)
The Talmud interprets this verse to mean that while Pharaoh missed his original appointment with Nebuchadrezer, God will, nevertheless, summon him again to face his trial. On a more benign level, this passage asserts that both on the human level and on the Divine level, people must be given more than one opportunity to measure up to their responsibilities. Fairness requires it.