Haftarah Parshat Bo (Jeremiah 46:13-28)
February 4, 2017 / 5 Shevat 5777
Metaphors can often express a message more powerfully than direct expression. This literary tool works, however, only when the audience understands the imagery. One verse, in particular, from this week’s haftarah bears out this idea: “Egypt is a handsome heifer (eglah yafefiah), a gadfly (keretz) from the north is coming” (verse 20)
The description of Egypt as an “eglah yefefiah” might seem a bit odd. Herodotus, the Greek historian clears up the confusion. For the Egyptians, Aphis, who was represented by a heifer, served as a deity. As such, the beautiful heifer was an apropos mascot for Egypt. (See Menahem Bula, Isaiah, Daat Mikra, p. 548, note 52) On the other hand, Babylonia is likened to a “keretz”. What is a “keretz”? Here, a debate in the Talmud chimes in: “‘Ulla said: It is a synonym for ‘slaying’ Rav Nahman bar Yitchak said: What is the scriptural evidence? Egypt is a very fair heifer. But the kerez [gadfly] out of the north is coming, it is coming. What is the intimation? As R. Joseph interpreted it: A fair kingdom is Egypt but murderous nations from the north will come upon it.” (Yoma 32b)
At the time of Jeremiah, the world scene was in flux. Old powers were waning and new powers were waxing. Egypt thought of itself as “the world power”, meaning, it thought of itself as invincible. But there was a new power on the rise, Babylonia, which had only recently come onto the world’s stage. Judea, the state of the Jews, stood as a geographic bridge between these two powers and was literally and figuratively caught in the middle, not knowing whom to side with.
Now we can unmask the mystery of the above metaphor and its meaning in Jeremiah’s prophecy. Egypt was arrogant in its position in the world. It was a “beautiful heifer”, the glory of the world. It thought itself invincible. Who would bring it down? An unsuspected foe – a seemingly inconsequential insect, the gadfly would bring about its demise.
Jeremiah’s message was aimed at the nations involved but could easily be applied on multiple levels as well. Hubris is an awful quality. It is harmful for those who are plagued with it and equally damaging for those who are gullibly taken in by the impression it makes on others. It clouds one’s judgment and deludes those taken in by it. Jeremiah reminds us that ultimately God will bring down those afflicted with it.
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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