The Hebrew Scriptures are not readily or easily understood by native English speakers, we post a weekly addition to regular Torah commentary. "Cutting to the Root" is intended to promote an understanding of the complexity of the Hebrew language and thereby gain a richer and deeper understanding of the Scriptures. It is our goal that these notes will teach tolerance and understanding.Please visit our web site at

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Parashat Bo - the Haftara

Parashat Bo – the Haftara
Jeremiah 46:13 - 28
Reading date: 31st January 2009 – 6th Shvat 5769

Our highlighted Haftara text
“But you, have no fear,My servant Jacob, declares YHVH.For I am with youI will make an end of all the nationsAmong which I have banished you.But I will not make an end of you!I will not leave you unpunished,But I will chastise you in measure...”Jeremiah 46: 28

Only if we are prepared to filter the truths of the Bible through the lens of rational thought can we protect ourselves from the dangers of fundamentalism.

Last week's narrative of the ten plagues concludes with the final three (locusts, darkness, and the killing of the first-borns) and then our Parasha describes the celebration of the first Passover (still in Egypt). This week, a prophecy from the prophet Jeremiah has been chosen, and like last week, it is a message against Egypt. Again, YHVH will wreak judgment on Egypt and her gods. Egypt, already defeated at the battle of Carchemish in 605 BCE at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar (here written as Nebuchadrezzar) of Babylonia, would be further conquered. The haftara ends with a message of consolation that Israel should not fear for YHVH is with them.

The haftara begins 'The word which YHVH spoke to the prophet Jeremiah about the coming of King Nebuchadnezzar to attack the land of Egypt (Jer. 46:13). This parallels the beginning of the parasha: Then Adonai said to Moses: Come to Pharaoh...; also note the word 'attack - lehakkot ' is related to ‘makkot’ - the Hebrew word for the plagues. Another linguistic connection is the description of the Babylonian army being as numerous as a swarm of locusts (Jer. 46:23).

Jeremiah lived during the reign of King Josiah who restored the Temple order and instituted religious reforms after finding an ancient scroll believed to be the book of Deuteronomy. Some scholars identify Jeremiah as the author of the book of Deuteronomy. The Kingdom of Judah was caught in the crossfire between the superpowers of Egypt to the south and the Babylonians in the North. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had already been destroyed by the Assyrians in 721 BCE. Egypt marched through the land of Israel to attack Babylonia, and on route battled with the Israelites at Megiddo, killing Josiah. The Egyptians however were defeated by Nebuchadnezzar in 605 BCE, and Jerusalem came under Nebuchadnezzar's rule. In 586 BCE Jerusalem was razed and the Temple destroyed. The religious and political elite were exiled to Babylonia, but a remnant of the Jewish population fled to Egypt and took Jeremiah with them.

Jeremiah promises that although the Israelites are in exile, YHVH will deliver them and return them from a land far away. He may be referring to both the exiles in Babylonia and his compatriots who are now in Egypt. This note of YHVH's redemption parallels the weekly reading of the exodus from Egypt and YHVH's fulfillment of the promise to redeem the Israelites. It is very popular to provide scientific accounts for the plagues, because otherwise the Torah seems like a children's fairy tale. But the Torah is not just a story. If the Torah is to have any meaning at all, these historic events must impact on our lives in substantial ways. We hold a Passover Seder because we believe. This belief helps instill in us the knowledge of the importance of knowing the difference between freedom and slavery. But what if a biblical account or commandment were to demand more radical behavior? Would we still do it?

This question separates moderates from extremists. Moderates try to balance religious values and truths with scientific facts and modern values. At its core, religion is a conservative force. It is very difficult for religious traditions to evolve (even though they do - at glacial speed); after all, how can Divine Truth change? Religious leaders and institutions are slow to adapt and admit change, but yes, we have made progress in some areas: most fundamentalists and Creationists admit the earth revolves around the sun, and not the other way around. It wasn't so easy, either, ask Galileo! The problem is that while many religious ideas are ennobling, some are simply wrong, and by its very nature, religion has no internal mechanism to be self-reflective, critical or self-correcting. So we see the importance of remaining adherent to the simplicity of the written Word and to deviate into doctrine or dogma.

Today, extreme examples (stoning a rebellious child, a blasphemer, or someone who desecrates Shabbat) have been tempered by rabbinic interpretation, and increasing scientific knowledge of the natural world explains illness from viruses and bacteria instead of demons or sin. Many either interpret or ignore problematic biblical passages, and after winnowing, generally only the 'good parts' remain. Liberals generally read biblical prophecies metaphorically, and are usually not too bothered by troublesome verses. Their religious wisdom and insights are filtered through the lens of scientific rationalism and the modern world's values.

But other groups, like us tend to have a more literal understanding of Scripture. And this is can be really frightening, because such readings of Scripture are, by definition, indisputable. This is largely where we find ourselves today – facing the reality of the fulfillment of prophecy! Belief in the absoluteness of the Word is beyond rational discourse. It doesn't matter what scientific evidence for evolution is brought to a believing mind.

What we believe informs how we act. Christian Scientists do not allow for medical intervention, not because they don't love their children, but because they believe that only YHVH can heal. But while others believe in the efficacy of prayer (and some studies demonstrate that patients who were prayed for, recovered more quickly), most of us (Christian Scientists excepted) would be concerned if our surgeon in the operating room put down his instruments and started chanting Psalms instead. There is certainly no harm done in reciting Psalms, and it may even be beneficial for the patient hearing them and the person reciting them. But the surgeon should rely on his medical training as well as his faith in the Almighty.

Jeremiah's oracle against Egypt ends, on what seems at first glance, to be a hopeful note. But when we consider it more closely, it contains a profoundly disturbing verse: "I will make an end of all the nations." Fortunately no one that I know of reads this verse to mean that one should strap explosives to one's belt and detonate oneself on a crowded bus. But there are extremists who do. If we are prepared to filter the truths of the Bible through the lens of rational thought will we be able to protect ourselves from these kinds of dangers of religious fundamentalism? I think not.

Shabbat Shalom

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