Haftarah Parashat Bo
January 20, 2018 | 4 Shevat 5778
There is a clear distinction between pshat, the plain meaning of a text, and drash, the interpretive meaning, which can offer differ radically. The rabbinic sages famously used both methods of reading a text to cull “divine” meaning from the Tanakh – the Hebrew Bible. The sages were fond of describing this phenomenon using a verse from Jeremiah 23:29: “‘Is not My (God’s) word… a hammer that breaks the rock to pieces?’ – As a hammer splits the rock into many splinters, so will a Scriptural verse yield many meanings” (Sanhedrin 34a). I am reminded of this metaphor when approaching a particular verse in this week’s haftarah, whose pshat (plain meaning) differs radically from its drash (rabbinicinterpretation).
Jeremiah’s prescient message in this week’s haftarah is a warning to the Egyptians immediately before the destruction of the First Temple and the fall of Judea that they would soon be defeated by the Babylonian army. To describe this inevitability, Jeremiah draws upon a rich simile: “…as surely as [Mount] Tabor is among the mountains and [Mount] Carmel is by the sea, so shall this come” (Jeremiah 46:18). The plain meaning of the verse is that the defeat of the Egyptians is as obvious and natural as the location of great mountains. (See Y. Hoffman, Jeremiah, Mikra L’Yisrael, p. 770)
A teaching from the Talmud in Megillah 29a detaches the simile used in this verse from its context and plays with the wording:
Rabbi Elazar ha-Kappar says: In the future, the synagogues and houses of learning in Babylon will be set up in Eretz Israel, as it says: ‘Tabor among the mountains and Carmel by the sea, came.’ From that we can infer that just as Carmel and Tabor, which came only on a single occasion to learn the Torah, were implanted in Eretz Israel, how much more must this be the case with the synagogues and houses of learning [outside of Eretz Israel] where the Torah is read and expounded!
Let’s break this down a bit. Rabbi Elazar ha-Kappar plays with the wording of the verse in Jeremiah to say that Mount Tabor and Mount Carmel came to Eretz Israel from elsewhere. And what made them do this? Their desire to learn Torah! And if MOUNTAINS would uproot themselves to learn Torah in Israel, then certainly Torah-loving Jews would do the same!
Certainly Rabbi Elazar ha-Kappar, who lived in Eretz Israel around 200 CE, saw Israel as the most natural place to learning Torah. But what is remarkable is that this teaching only comes to us because it was preserved in the Babylonian Talmud – the one produced outside of Eretz Israel!
Perhaps this was a nod of recognition by the Jewish scholars in Babylonia that love of Torah will always draw people to a place where people speak Hebrew (or, in his day, both Hebrew and Aramaic) and where life follows a natural Jewish rhythm. Looking forward to seeing you in Jerusalem!