January 23, 2010
8 Shevat 5770
The prophet\’s role was to challenge, chide, and chastise but it was also to comfort and counsel. Jeremiah\’s message in this week\’s haftarah was in the latter category. He foresaw that God would visit punishment upon Egypt, one of the two world powers that challenged the nation of Judah\’s existence. Judah was counseled not to fear from the upheaval because its salvation was assured. Still, for a small, beleaguered nation surrounded by great powers, solace did not come easily.
At the end of Jeremiah\’s prophecy, he summarizes Egypt\’s fate: \”The Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, has said: \’I will inflict punishment on Amon of No and on Pharaoh – on Egypt, her gods and her kings – on Pharaoh and on all who rely on him. I will deliver them into the hand of those who seek to kill them, into the hands of Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon and into the hands of his subjects. But afterwards she shall be inhabited again as in former days\’, declares the Lord.\” (25-26)
Jeremiah\’s conciliatory words to his own nation are juxtaposed with this prophecy: \”But you, have no fear, My servant Jacob; Be not dismayed, O Israel! I will deliver you from far away, your folk from their land of captivity; and Jacob shall again have calm and quiet, with none to trouble him.\” (27)
This prophecy should have allayed the nation\’s angst, but for some of the medieval commentators, the promise of Egypt\’s restoration recounted at the end of the prophecy of its defeat was a source of dismay. After all, Egypt quickly rebuilt itself while Judah\’s redemption seemed to tarry for so long. Rabbi David Kimche (12th century Provence) asserted that this prophecy was intended to reassure the nation that their restoration would ultimately be qualitatively different from that of Egypt. Egypt would never experience a period of quiet and peace while Israel\’s restoration, when it eventually came, would be utopian in nature.
Rabbi Isaac Abrabanel (15th century Spain) was also disconcerted by the contrast between the brevity of the Egyptian exile to Babylonia with the seemingly never ending Jewish exile. The tenor of his interpretation differs from Kimche\’s. He distinguishes between two types of Jewish exiles: those who left voluntarily and those who were forcibly exiled. He claims that those who were forcibly exiled from their homeland would be returned home more quickly than those who abandoned their nation and left voluntarily. These people, he asserts, would have to wait for the ultimate redemption.
Why does Abrabanel make this seemingly strange distinction? Obviously, he sees those who maintained loyalty to their nation and people, even in hard times, as more worthy than those who, figuratively, abandoned ship. It takes faith and strength of will to identify in hard times. Abrabanel should know, having himself undergone exile from Portugal and from Spain for being a Jew even though he had been the Finance Minister of both countries. His faith in God and the strength of his Jewish identity, however, never waivered. Is it any wonder, then, that he felt this meritorious behavior should be rewarded?