Haftarah Parshat Bo (Jeremiah 46:13-28)
January 24, 2015 / 4 Shevat 5775
Most of this week’s haftarah is caught up with Jeremiah’s prophecy of Egypt’s demise at the hands of Nebuchadrezzar, the king of Babylonia. This conquest was to be swift and overpowering, rendering the Egyptians incapacitated. At the end of this prophecy, we find a refrain found elsewhere in the book of Jeremiah, as well, promising the nation of Israel that their outcome from this conflict is assured: “But you, have no fear, My servant Jacob. Be not dismayed, O Israel! I will deliver you from far away; your folk from the land of their captivity; and Jacob shall again have calm and quiet, with none to trouble him. But you, Jacob, have no fear, declared the Lord.” (verse 27)
Taken out of context, this verse plays a role in a strange dialogue between two sages found in the Babylonian Talmud: “Rabbi Nahman and Rabbi Isaac were sitting at a meal and Rabbi Nahman said to Rabbi Isaac: ‘Would the Master teach something?’ He replied: ‘Thus said Rabbi Johanan: One should not converse at meals lest the windpipe acts before the gullet and his life will thereby be endangered (from chocking).’ At the end of the meal he added: ‘Thus said Rabbi Johanan: Jacob our patriarch did not die.’ Rabbi Nahman objected: ‘Was it for nothing that he was eulogized, embalmed and buried?’ Rabbi Isaac replied: ‘Scripture I interpret (doraish), as it is said: “But you, have no fear, My servant Jacob. Be not dismayed, O Israel! I will deliver you from far away; your folk from the land of their captivity.” Since this verse [seemingly] equates him [Jacob] to his seed [Israel]; [it must be the case that just] as his seed will then be alive so he too will be alive.’” (adapted from Taanit 5b)
What was the intent of the drash? Was it meant to be taken literally or figuratively? From this particular anecdote it is hard to know Rabbi Isaac’s intent. Rashi takes this drash at face value: “They (his children) only thought that Jacob was dead [but really,] when God will bring them from their captivity, He will redeem Jacob’s children before his (Jacob’s) very eyes.” Nahmanides, in his Torah commentary (Genesis 49:39) rejects Rashi’s interpretation noting that it is Jacob’s soul which remained alive. The Tosafot on the Talmud note that we learn that Jacob did not die from the fact that regarding his death the Torah uses the word “vayegva”and not “vayamot” [like it did for the other patriarchs, Abraham and Isaac].
If we accept the assertion of the Tosafot , since Rabbi Isaac did not need the verse from Jeremiah to prove that Jacob did not die, what was the purpose of quoting that verse? After all, Rabbi Isaac tells us explicitly: “It is Scripture that I interpret”! His intention was inspirational. It was his desire to let his audience know that when the redemption comes, father Jacob will be there to greet his family. For Rabbi Isaac, the presence of the great father of the Jewish people represented the greatest possible promise for a people yearning for home. (See C. Milikowsky, “Midrash HaAggadah – Reality or Metaphor”. Heb.)