"Fear Not, My Servant Yaakov" (Yirmiyahu 46: 27,28)Some general background on the "Haftarot"
The Haftarah of Parshat Bo is taken from the Book of Yirmiyahu/Jeremiah, Chapter 46, verses 13-28. For more information on Yirmiyahu, click on Yirmiyahu-Bio. In it, the Prophet Yirmiyahu delivers the message from Hashem that the Nation of Egypt would soon be defeated and exiled by the Babylonians. This was punishment for their failure to come to the aid of the People of Israel as they had promised, when Israel was under attack, and Jerusalem under siege by Nevuchadnezzar, King of Babylonia.
The context of the Haftarah is a series of prophecies of defeat against enemies of Israel: Egypt, the Philistines, Moav, Amon, Ashur, and finally, the total destruction of one of the "rods of Hashem's anger," Babylonia.
Summary of the Haftarah
The Haftarah begins with its own concise summary: "Nevuchadnezzar, King of Babylonia, is coming to attack Egypt."
"Announce it in your cities, that a 'sword' has been loosed around you. Why are your mighty warriors swept away, as if by a flood? They cannot stand because Hashem has thrown them down."
"Even your hired mercenaries are abandoning you, out of dread of that terrible sword." It may be no accident that the Prophet has chosen the expression "the sword of Yonah," which, in addition to meaning a terrible sword, can also be a reference to the Prophet Yonah. That Prophet represents the fact of prophecy by a Jewish Prophet to a non-Jewish audience, the King and the citizens of Nineveh, who received a prophecy of imminent destruction if they would not repent. But repent they did! Perhaps this prophecy of Yirmiyahu as well is a last-minute warning of destruction, unless Egypt repents.
"Pharaoh is exposed as a king full of 'sound and fury, signifying nothing (Macbeth).' He promised deliverance to the People of Israel, but he missed his opportunity."
"As I live, says Hashem, as Mt. Tabor lies among the mountains, and as Mt. Carmel overlooks the Sea of Galilee, he (Nevuchadnezzar) is coming! Make for yourself clothing suitable for your exile, O Maiden of Mitzrayim, for Memphis will be destroyed, reduced to uninhabited wilderness."
"Ah, you are a 'beautiful calf,' Mitzrayim." The choice of the metaphor of a calf certainly has the symbolic meaning that Egypt worshipped the calf, and perhaps also that it may have been the "black magic" of Egypt which played a role in Israel's worshipping of the Golden Calf. "But slaughter is coming your way very fast!"
"Even your mercenaries will abandon you, and flee the battle like a stampeding herd of cattle. For they sense that an awful day is coming for them - a time when they will be caught."
"They will cry out in terror, as the Original Serpent cried when the Angels cut off its legs in fulfillment of Hashem's curse (Bereshit 3:14). For they (the Babylonian soldiers) are coming with axes, as woodchoppers, to a forest of defenseless trees." (Metzudat David) They will cut down the forest of innumerable trees (the Egyptian soldiers) because they are more than a huge swarm of locusts."
" 'You will be utterly shamed, delivered altogether into the hands of a northern nation,' says the L-rd of Hosts, the G-d of Israel, 'I will punish Amon, King of No (a city by that name in Egypt, according to the 'RADAK,' Rabbi David Kimchi or, according to Targum Yonatan, 'multitudes of Alexandria' (also in Egypt )). I will bring an all-encompassing punishment: against the Pharaoh, and against Egypt, and against its gods, and against all of its sub-kings, and against all the allies of the Pharaoh.' "
" 'And I will deliver them into the hands of those who want to kill them - into the hands of Nevuchadrezzar, King of Babylonia, and his servants' (the replacement of the letter 'n' in his name by the letter 'r' may be to change the meaning to 'murderer' (rotzeach) from 'the eternal one' (netzach)."
" 'But afterwards, after the forty years (that Yechezkel prophesied - Yechezkel 29: 11,13), Egypt will resume its status as a 'second-rate' power,' says Hashem."
Turning now to the people of Israel, Hashem says, "But you, do not fear, my servant Yaakov, and do not feel broken and lost in your Exile, for I will save you, though you are far away, and your descendants, from their captivity. And Yaakov will return, and be at peace and be serene and will not be made to tremble!"
Rabbi Moshe Weissman, in his work, "The Midrash Says - on the Weekly Haftaros," published by Bnei Yaakov Publications, cites the Midrash Tiferes Tziyon (Vayikra Rabba 29:2), which explains how each of the above expressions is appropriate:
"Veshav," "And they will return" to their homeland, because in their Exile, in Babylonia itself, as opposed to how they were treated in Jerusalem, the Jewish People were treated as an honored, important community.
"Veshaket," "And they will be at peace," refers to the Persian Exile, since that People persecuted the Jews physically.
"Veshaanan," And they will be serene, enjoying physical and spiritual peace," refers to the struggle with the Greeks, because the main thrust and attack of the Greeks against the Jews was their attempt to force them to abandon their religion.
"Veayn Macharid," "No one will make them tremble," refers to the Exile of Edom, the Roman and Christian Exile, our present Exile, which has been the longest, and the most filled with terror and fear, the one that we hope is now turning around.
Hashem repeats these comforting words to the People of Israel, for emphasis and further elaboration. "And you, do not fear, my servant, Yaakov, for I AM WITH YOU, and ultimately the nations that persecuted you will disappear among the nations of the world, but you will never disappear. True, I will punish you if you sin, but (because of our special relationship, 'You are My witnesses,') you will never disappear from the stage of history."
Links to Parshah
A Difficult Philosophical Problem
One of the age-old questions which is raised when our Parshah and our Haftarah are studied, is the following:
We know that Hashem wanted Egypt to enslave the Jewish People. In fact, that was part of Hashem's promise to Avraham (Bereshit 15:13). If so, why is Egypt being punished for doing Hashem's will? (This question applies more to the Parshah.)
A similar question can be raised in connection with the Babylonians, who seemed to, after all, be executing G-d's Will in destroying the Temple! Why, therefore, will they be punished by defeat at the hands of the Persians, a fate which Yirmiyahu will pronounce upon them several chapters downstream?
I do an absolute injustice to the RAMBAN, by attempting to compress his answer to this difficult question, into just a few sentences.
It is true that Hashem wanted the Jewish People to be punished and enslaved by the Egyptians, and that He decided that the Temple should be destroyed by the Babylonians.
But Pharaoh and his nation, and Nevuchadnezzar and his nation, went way beyond the bounds of what Hashem wanted them to do. Enslavement does not imply torture; nor does invasion imply genocide!
For these extremes of behavior, which Pharaoh led his People into, and which Nevuchadnezzar led his People into, and both nations readily acquiesced, and for which we sadly have a modern parallel as well, Hashem, the "Righteous Judge of All the Earth" (Bersehit 18:25), chose to punish both kings and their nations, following the principle of "Midah K'neged Midah," "Measure for Measure."
Rabbi Pinchas Frankel
Rabbi Frankel is an Educational Coordinator at the OU