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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Parashat Vayera - the Haftara

Parashat Vayera – the Haftara
Ezekiel 28:25 – 29:21
Reading date: 24th January 2009 – 28th Tevet 5769

Our highlighted Haftara text
“Behold, I am against you, Pharaoh King of Egypt, you are like the great crocodile, crouching in the Nile, thinking, 'The Nile is mine, I made it for myself.' I will put hooks through your jaws and make the fish of your streams stick to your scales. I will pull you up out of your river branches will all the fish of your River branches sticking to your scales. I will throw you out into the wilderness you and all the fish of your River branches. You shall fall on dry ground ungathered and unburied.” Ezekiel 28: 3-5

Only by remembering that we are just the servants in the palace, can we 'know' YHVH.
The extended narrative of the ten plagues that YHVH visits upon the Egyptians now begins. The first plague turns the Nile to blood. The theme of the plagues is "that Egypt will know that I am YHVH" a phrase that recurs ten times for each of the plagues. It is the answer to Pharaoh's retort: "Who is the Lord that I should heed YHVH and let Israel go? I do not know YHVH nor will I let Israel go." (Ex. 5:2). Indeed, this phrase is also repeated four times in our prophetic passage (Ez. 28:26b; 29:9; 29:16; 29:21).

Ezekiel's prophecy is directed against Egypt. Just like YHVH punished the Egyptians in the days of Moses, now too, YHVH will devastate Egypt and restore Israel to its homeland. YHVH reminds Pharaoh that his claim to self sufficiency because he made the Nile is arrogantly proud. Only YHVH is the Author of creation, and Pharaoh is compared to a sea monster (or Egyptian crocodile) that is hauled out of Egypt's irrigation channels and flung into the desert.

The prophet Ezekiel lived during the destruction of the First Temple at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar (586 BCE) and was exiled to Babylonia. In the first half of the book of Ezekiel, the prophet warns of the imminent destruction of Jerusalem; in the latter half, he preaches a message of consolation and restoration. While Ezekiel still had hope that the Northern Kingdom would be restored and then united, in fact, this prophecy did not come to pass. Ezekiel's message against Egypt reflects Israel's disappointment that Egypt did not come to Israel's aid.
Pharaoh is described as boasting, 'The Nile is mine, I have made [it] myself.' The Hebrew word for Nile is ‘ye'or’, derived from the Egyptian word for river. Indeed, the Nile, is "The" River. The Nile was Egypt's lifeline. In addition to being an important seaway for easy transportation, it provided fish for food, papyrus and most importantly, rich, fertile soil with its yearly flooding. The Nile is prominent in the early Exodus narratives: Egypt's source of life is (ironically) the tool for the murder of the Israelites. Moses is rescued from the Nile (and indebted to it), it is therefore Aaron who performs the first plague of blood against it instead of Moses). Many of the plagues are announced at the river's edge. In the prophets, the Nile becomes a symbol for Egypt (Amos 8:8), and the description of YHVH drying up the Nile represents the punishment and downfall of Egypt (Isa. 19:5-7; Zach. 10:11). In our passage, the fish of the Nile represent the nation of Egypt (Rashi).

For the ancient Egyptians, the Nile was a god (Hapi) and was worshipped. Not surprisingly, then, the first plague was on the Nile. Turning the Nile to blood (echoing the Egyptians earlier attempts at genocide) is also to demonstrate the power of YHVH over the Egyptians gods. The Midrash astutely understands that the plague of blood was an attack on the Egyptian pantheon.
Why were the waters first transformed to blood? Said the Holy Blessed One: I shall strike first his god, then his nation! As the saying goes, Strike the god, and the priests will tremble. Shemot Rabbah

The Torah tells us, that to show their own power, the Egyptian magicians did the same thing (Ex. 7:22). Ibn Ezra asks where the Egyptians got the water from to do the trick since even the water in stone and wooden vessels were transformed? The Egyptians were able to find unaffected subterranean water sources by digging around the Nile (v. 24). But the conjurers' trick pales in comparison to YHVH's act. More significantly, it seems that the magicians are powerless to reverse the effect: turning the blood back into water- although that is indeed how some commentators understand the phrase 'and the conjurers did the same' Restoring the blood back into water certainly would have been more impressive!

When Moses and Aaron approach Pharaoh the first time (actually at the conclusion of last week's parasha) and ask for the Israelites' freedom, he says: "I do not know this 'God'. In other words, 'I do not need this God.' In the ancient world, rain was seen as a gift from God, and the Israelites were dependent on rain for their harvest. Pharaoh, however, did not need rain. 'The Nile is mine' means the 'Nile takes care of me.' Ezekiel suggestively describes Pharaoh as a great crocodile, (usually ‘tannin’, although here written as ‘tannim’). The crocodile-headed god Sobek, who represented the power of the Pharaohs, created the Nile, and was the god of fertility and rebirth. In the Bible, the ‘tannin’ was also the mighty sea-monster that in ancient creation mythology is destroyed by YHVH.

In Ezekiel, we read of Pharaoh's boast that he created the Nile: 'I have made [it] myself.' Rashi adds: "By my own strength and my own wisdom I have enlarged my kingdom." The Midrash takes this one step further, reading the Hebrew to mean, 'I made myself.' By suggesting that the verse can refer to himself (as well as the Nile) the Midrash hints that he considers himself like the Nile, a god. In ancient Egypt, the Pharaoh, in fact, was worshipped as a god.

I see a dangerous progression here. First we deny YHVH. Then we claim that we run the world (or at least know how the world works). Soon we are ready to make ourselves into YHVH. In Ezekiel, YHVH says, 'I am against you' (Ez. 29:3). The Hebrew ‘alecha’ might also be rendered as 'Behold, I am above you.' That is, know that I am your master and can deal with you as I see fit. The Maggid of Dubnow compares this to a servant in a palace who tries boasting to a visitor that he is the owner of the palace, only to be interrupted by the actual master who chides him to not misrepresent his position. Only by remembering that we are just the servants in the palace, can we 'know' YHVH.

Shabbat Shalom

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