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Bo 5773

Haftarah Parshat Bo
(Jeremiah 46:13-28)
January 19, 2013
8 Shevat 5773

Immediately before the destruction of the First Temple, Egypt and Babylonia were the two great powers in the Middle East with the beleaguered nation of Judea caught in between them. Jeremiah, who, unlike the leadership of Judea thought it wise to be allied with Babylonia, issued a blistering message to the Egyptians that their nation was doomed. He warned them of their defeat at the hands of the Babylonians, expressing himself in poetically colorful language: “Why are your stalwarts swept away (nishaf)? They did not stand firm, for the Lord thrust them down.” (46:15)

The word “nishaf”, whose root is “samech het peh”, appears in the Tanach only once elsewhere, in the book of Proverbs (28:3): “A poor man that oppresses the weak is like a sweeping (destructive – NJPS) rain (matar sohef) which leaves no food.” Targum Yonatan, the Aramaic translation of the Prophets, translates our verse: “Why are your heroes broken, unable to rise up. [It is] because God broke them down.” Since the word “nishaf” is a rare usage, Rashi’s commentary reads like a philological discussion. After bringing the verse from Proverbs, he records the use of this verb root in the Mishnah (Ketubot 7:8): “the field was swept away (nistahfah)” meaning the field was destroyed. What is clear from this discussion is that the Egyptians are being warned that their fate at the hands of the Babylonians will be tragic because God warrants their destruction.

The word “nishaf” makes an unusual appearance in the Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Joseph Karo’s law code (16th century Safed), in a discussion on conversion. Karo records: When someone comes to convert, they {the beit din) say to him: What have you seen that you have come to convert? Don’t you know that these days that Israel (Jews) are ‘sweepingly maddeningly oppressed – dehufim sehufim u’metorafim” and afflictions come upon them [for being Jewish]. If he answers: ‘I know but I am unworthy to join them’, he is accepted immediately…” (Yoreh Deah 268:2) The printed edition of the Shulchan Aruch notes that the word “sehufim” means “[seemingly] hopeless”, as derived from our verse in Jeremiah.

Jeremiah encourages the Egyptians to have faith that God’s destructive intent for the Egyptians army will indeed occur. The Shulchan Aruch, on the other hand, expects the ger (convert) to have sufficient faith in God to believe in Him even in a trying situation (i.e. the tribulations of the Jewish people). Life hands us both kinds of trials in faith. Our dilemma as religious human beings is knowing how to meet each kind of trial.

About This Commentary

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.

The United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem offers students of all backgrounds the skills for studying Jewish texts. We are a vibrant, open-minded egalitarian community of committed Jews who learn, practise and grow together. Our goal is to provide students the ability and desire to continue Jewish learning and practice throughout their lives.
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