Haftarah Parashat Va’era
January 13, 2018 | 26 Tevet 5778
Ezekiel was a prophet who lived in exile, during the period of the destruction of the First Temple. Not just a prophet, he was also a discerning critic of his nation’s geopolitical situation. In his day, there were two world powers to be reckoned with, Babylonia and Egypt – with Judea, the nation of the Jews, stuck in between. Judea’s fate was to be determined by balancing its relations with the two. Judea, however, had determined that its fate would be best served by an alliance with Egypt. Ezekiel thought this was tragic mistake.
Ezekiel described Egypt as a nation with a false impression of its power and greatness. Judea was taken in by Egypt’s promises and thought Egypt to be a dependable ally in its defense against the Babylonians aggression. Ezekiel railed against this false conception and warned his countrymen of its consequences: “…You were a staff of reed to the House of Israel: when they grasped you with the hand, you would splinter. And wound all their shoulders, and when they leaned on you, you would break and make all their loins unsteady.” (29:6-7)
The prophet likened Egypt to a staff made of reed. Rashi explained the significance of this image: “the reed is soft and cannot bear the weight of the one it is supporting…. It is like a person who is supported by his staff until it breaks. The person falls on it and splinters from it pierce his shoulders. After this, the victim must strengthen himself and stand on his own. [So, too, Egypt is like] someone upon whom others depend, but is weak. It finally says [to its dependents]: Strengthen yourselves. You can no longer depend on me.” (Adapted translation)
Judea’s mistake was more than just choosing the “wrong horse” in the geopolitical struggle. Egypt boasted that it was the “greatest” nation. Its leader glorified himself to the extent of being a deity. It is this false idolatrous sense which could not be trusted. It was naive to attach Judea’s fate to this false assessment.
Ezekiel’s warning is important not only in the realm of international relations. There are lots of false idols urging us to put our trust in them. We are urged to take care lest those who claim greatness and trustworthiness turn out to be nothing more than a “staff of reed” which will splinter and cause our downfall. Sometimes, religiously inspired cynicism can be a saving force.