January 27, 2007
Jeremiah\’s message, in this week\’s haftarah, was shaped for a particular historical context and was intended for a specific nation. Jeremiah lived in the period immediately preceding the destruction of the First Temple, a period which found Judea caught between the two world powers of the day, Egypt and Babylonia. Jeremiah foresaw a Babylonian victory over Egypt at God\’s behest as punishment for Egypt\’s mistreatment of the nation of Judea. At one point, Jeremiah describes the expected fate of Egypt\’s mighty warriors: \”Why are your stalwarts (abirekha – also sometimes translated as \’nobles\’) swept away (niskhaf)? They did not stand firm, for the Lord thrust them down.\” (Verse 15)
This verse, in its rhetorical tone, seeks to contrast the stalwart image of Egypt\’s heroes and their unanticipated fate. Only God could sweep them away and cause their much deserved downfall. The prophet sees these events before his very own eyes as if they have already occurred and is astonished at this most improbable result.
A millennium later, rabbinic sages used this same verse, in the context of a description of the fate of the four major civilizations which had enslaved the Jewish nation. This time, however, it was used not to describe the fate of Jeremiah\’s Egypt. Instead it was brought to portray the much deserved punishment of Rome, the nation which plagued the Jews at the time of the writing of this midrash: \”So, too, [God will strike down] Rome and its ministering angel, as it is written, \’Why were your nobles (abirekha) washed away (niskhaf)?\’ This means that both Rome and its ministering angel were stricken down. In the world to come, the Holy One Blessed Be He will sit in judgment over the Romans and say to them: \’Why did you enslave My children (the people of Israel)? They will reply: \’But didn\’t you hand them over to us?\’ The Holy One Blessed Be He responded: \’And just because I handed them over to you, does that mean that you should not treat them with mercy? Isn\’t it taught: \’upon the elders you have heavily laid your burden?\’ (Isaiah 47:6) This refers to the Roman treatment of Rabbi Akiva, whom they burdened without end.\” (Tanhuma Tazriah 11)
The sages in this midrash share the same vision for the Romans that Jeremiah had for the Egyptians in his day. The interchange in this midrash, however, is particularly interesting. It seems to take for granted that Roman domination was God determined. If so, what was Rome\’s sin? They sinned in not showing mercy upon their subjects. For this, they deserved punishment. The lesson of this midrash probably should not be lost on all who govern others.