Haftarah Parshat Bo
January 28, 2012
4 Shevat 5772
Parshat Bo (Jeremiah 46:13-28)
Egypt and Babylonia were the two ancient super-powers who faced off against each other during the period in which the First Temple was destroyed. Jeremiah, the prophet of the destruction, deftly discerned that Babylonia was the stronger power and saw God’s hand in its destructive power, especially in its battles against Judea’s so called ally – Egypt. Jeremiah does not spare his language in his depiction the pernicious Egyptians. Among the most colorful images that he chose is his portrayal in the following verse: “She shall rustle away as a snake (kola kanahash yeleh) as they (the Babylonians) come marching in force.” (46:22)
This first part of this verse is difficult to understand but M. Bula seems to capture its spirit: “The sound of Egypt which was previously a clamor (shaon – see verse 17), is now like the rustle of a snake.” (See Jeremiah, Daat Mikra, p. 549) Egypt has undergone a transformation from being strong and willful into being cowardly and weak.
In the midrashic tradition, the image of the snake conjures up associations with the primordial snake of the Garden of Eden story. This verse is interpreted in the following midrash as a perpetuation of that first snake which betrayed God at the beginning of human history: “Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish stated: When the Holy One, blessed be He, said to the serpent, “On your belly will you crawl” (Genesis 3:14), the ministering angels descended and cut off its hands and legs, and its cry went (halah kolo) from one end of the world to the other. The serpent[’s cry] came and foreshadowed the downfall of Edom [Rome], as it is said: ‘The sound shall go forth like the serpent\’s (kola kanahash yeleh)’ (Jeremiah 46:22).” (Kohelet Rabbah 10:11)
This verse from Jeremiah, which ostensibly describes the downfall of Egypt at the hands of the Babylonians, in the hands of the sages becomes a harbinger of the downfall of the Jews’ bitter enemy in rabbinic times – the Romans (Edom). This midrash can be seen in even more mythic proportions. The epic tale in Genesis is recast through this verse from Jeremiah as a message for all of the demonic (evil) in the world. All of them, like the serpent in Eden (and like Egypt in the time of Jeremiah) start out with a roar, creating havoc and clamor, but in the end their fate will be like that of the serpent, slithering along the ground barely making any noise, defeated by a force greater than they.
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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