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Parshat Shemot

Haftarah Parshat Shemot (Isaiah 27:6-28:13; 29:22-3)
January 10, 2015 / 19 Tevet 5775

The prophecy immediately preceding this week’s haftarah portends the total destruction of the enemies of Israel. This week’s haftarah opens with the message that, in contrast, Israel (and Judea) will be punished moderately for their sins. After this opening message, however, there are a number of verses for which it is difficult to discern to whom they refer. Are they meant to prophecy punishment for Israel or for its enemies: “Thus fortified cities lie desolate, homesteads deserted, forsaken like a wilderness; there calves graze, there they lie down and consume its boughs.” (27:10)

To whom does this verse refer? On the one hand, since this chapter compares God’s absolute punishment of Israel’s enemies with His measured punishment of Israel, this verse would seem to refer to Israel’s enemies. On the other hand, the preceding verse notes God’s punishment of Israel for idolatry. Could it be that this verse is a follow-up to that verse considering the seriousness of this sin? Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (11th century Spain), the noted pashtan (plain meaning of the text advocate), makes Shomron (Samaria), the capital of Israel, the northern kingdom, the victim of this punishment. On a similar cord, Rabbi David Kimche (12th century Provence) identifies the city as either Shomron or Jerusalem. Rashi, however, following rabbinic precedent, identifies the city to be punished with Israel’s future enemy Edom (the code name for Rome).

The origin of this idea is seemingly found in a famous midrash which links this verse with this week’s Torah reading:  “Pharaoh’s daughter used to kiss and hug him (Moses); [she] loved him as if he were her own son and would not allow him out of the royal palace. Because he was so handsome, everyone was eager to see him, and whoever saw him could not tear him or herself away from him. Pharaoh also used to kiss and hug him, and he [Moses] used to take the crown of Pharaoh and place it upon his own head, as he was destined to do when he became great. It was this which God said to Miriam: Therefore have I brought forth a fire from your midst.  (Ezekiel 28:18), and even so did the daughter of Pharaoh bring up him who was destined to exact retribution from her father. So too, the Messianic king, who will one day punish Edom, dwells amongst them in their land, as it is said: ‘There shall the calf feed, and there shall he lie down’ (Isaiah 27:10) The magicians of Egypt sat there and said: ‘We are afraid of him who is taking off thy crown and placing it upon his own head, lest he be the one of whom we prophesy that he will take away the kingdom from thee.’ Some of them counselled to slay him and others to burn him, but Jethro was present among them and he said to them: ‘ This boy has no sense. However, test him by placing before him a gold vessel and a live coal; if he stretch forth his hand for the gold, then he has sense and you can slay him, but if he make for the live coal, then he has no sense and there can be no sentence of death upon him.’ So they brought these things before him, and he was about to reach forth for the gold when Gabriel came and thrust his hand aside so that it seized the coal, and he thrust his hand with the live coal into his mouth, so that his tongue was burnt, with the result that he became slow of speech and of tongue.” (Shemot Rabbah 1:26 Shinan ed. pp. 82-84)

This midrash has an interesting take on how “wicked nations” fall. It asserts that the seeds of their destruction are born in their very midst. Righteousness will rise up from the very center of the wickedness and so Moses was nurtured in Pharaoh’s house and so the future redeemer will be realized from the very midst of wherever the darkness is greatest. There is something very profound in this idea.

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.

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