This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Dr. Ira Bedzow
On a superficial level, the relationship between Parshas Bo and its haphtorah is clear. In the parsha, God strikes at the heart of Egypt through the killing of Egypt’s firstborn sons, and the Jewish people cease being slaves of Pharoah and become avdei Hashem, servants of God. Similarly, in the haphtorah, Yirmiyahu prophesies that Egypt will be struck again, and that the Jews should not fear, for God will be with them: “Fear not, my servant (avdi) Yaakov, and do not be dismayed Israel. For I am He that will save you from afar, and your seed from the land of captivity” (Jer. 46:27). The parsha and haphtorah each emphasize that the Children of Israel are servants of God and not servants of servants (BT Kid. 22b).
Yet, when considering the haphtorah in the context of Sefer Yirmiyahu, a stark contrast emerges. While the parsha depicts the story of Egypt’s fall at the “hands” of G-d when the Jews leave Egypt to become a nation, the haphtorah speaks of Egypt’s fall at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, who had just exiled the Jews and decimated the Kingdom of Judah.
In the haphtorah, Yirmiyahu proclaims, “Proclaim it in Egypt! Make it heard in Migdol! Make it heard in Noph and Tachpanches!” The reason Yirmiyahu mentions these specific places is because those were the places to where the Jews fled after the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar.
Moreover, the Jews who fled to those places did so against Yirmiyahu’s warning. After the murder of Gedalia, who was appointed by Nebuchadnezzar to be governor over the remnant in the Kingdom of Judah, the Jews asked Yirmiyahu to beseech God as to what they should do. Yirmiyahu told them to stay in the land of Israel and not to flee to Egypt. They replied that Yirmiyahu must be lying and speaking with ulterior motives. They then decided to go to Egypt in spite of Yirmiyahu’s warning. In the parsha, it states, “The Children of Israel went and did as Hashem commanded Moshe and Aharon, so did they do” (Ex. 12:28). Contrast this to the Sefer Yirmiyahu, where it states, “and they came to the land of Egypt, for they did not listen to the voice of Hashem. (Jer. 43:7)”
Given this context, the final verse of the haphtorah is clear, “You should not fear my servant Yaakov, says Hashem, for I am with you. When I make a full end of all the nations where I have dispersed you, a full end of you I will not make, but I will chastise you according to justice but will not completely destroy you (alternatively: and I will not leave you innocent)” (46:28). When they fled to Egypt, they disparaged God’s word and put their trust in the political power of Egypt to save them from Babylonian aggression. As a result of disobeying God, Yirmiyahu says to them, “Know now for certain that you will die by the sword, by the famine and by the pestilence in the place in which you desire to go to live” (42:22). In the haphtorah, Yirmiyahu reiterates that those who disobeyed God and went to Egypt will not be destroyed like the other nations of the world who disobey God, but they will certainly be punished for their deeds. What the Jews should not fear is complete destruction, since they should understand that their chastisement will serve as moral instruction and rectification.
What at first glance is seen as parallel, now seems to be a contrast. If the sages wanted a simple parallel to the Exodus, a more relevant choice for the haphtorah would have been the section in Sefer Yirmiyahu which includes, “Therefore, behold days are coming, says Hashem, when they shall no longer say, ‘As Hashem lives, Who brought up the children of Israel from the land of Egypt,’ but, ‘As Hashem lives, Who brought up and Who brought the seed of the house of Israel from the northland and from all the lands where I have driven them, and they shall dwell on their land’” (Jer. 23:5-8). The haptorah for Parshas Bo must be teaching us something different than simply the Exodus occurred and Redemption will occur again, G-d willing.
The first verse of the maftir seems to provide the theme that ties the parsha to the haphtorah – “When your child will ask in the future, ‘What is this?’ you shall say to him, ‘With a strong hand Hashem took us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery ’” (Ex. 13:14). Redemption will not come through political machinations and convenient alliances that make the Children of Israel subservient to others. Moreover, the expression of religious ideals and values should not serve – or stem from – political aims. Only when the Children of Israel guard their service of God (Ex. 12:25) will Yirmiyahu’s assurance be fulfilled, “Yaakov will return and be tranquil without anyone disturbing him” (Jer. 46:27).
Ira Bedzow, Ph.D., (SBM 2003) is associate professor of medicine in the School of Medicine and director of the Biomedical Ethics & Humanities Program at New York Medical College (NYMC).