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Haftara for Bo 5777: Last Man Standing
‘The one place which is full of optimism, whose birthrate is booming along with its economy and is militarily equipped to counter the threats that face it, is Israel. At this rate Israel may be the “last man standing” in the civilised world’.
— Melanie Phillips
‘Jewish food tells the story of an uprooted, migrating people and their vanished worlds’.
— Claudia Roden
This prophecy of Yirmiyahu speaks of the approach of King Nebukhadnezzar of Babylon against Egypt. Yirmiyahu speaks of the devastation that will befall key Egyptian cities, causing fear and despair. People will flee the seemingly sturdy and beautiful Egypt. But in all of this destruction and demise, the nation of Israel, adjacent, will stand firm and survive. God promises always to deliver them from the lands of their captivity and that there will never be an end to the Jewish people.
The haftara relates to the parasha in that it speaks of the destruction of Egypt. It uses the analogy of ‘locusts’, described in the parasha. ‘They shall come against her with axes, like hewers of wood. They shall cut down her forests declares the Lord. Though it cannot be measured; for they are more numerous than locusts….’ (46:22-23)
My maternal grandfather is a great lover of Arabic music and my love for the music was nurtured by him. One of the most prolific and accomplished composers and singers of Arabic music was the Egyptian artist Muhammed Abdel Wahab. Many of his tunes are used by Eastern Sephardim throughout their prayers. Some years ago my grandfather had the opportunity to meet Abdel Wahab at a special event held for him at UCLA. He spoke with him after the event and told him that his music would live forever in our prayers. Upon hearing this, Abdel Wahab responded: ‘Lovely! Where are my royalties?!’
Abdel Wahab’s music is considered classical in Egypt today and few of the young people pay it any mind. Yet, there is hardly a young boy or girl in the Syrian Jewish community of New York who does not know at least a handful of his tunes. His music is indeed alive and well and sung daily within a portion of the Jewish people.
This, of course, is the story of our people. We have lived in and absorbed countless cultures and societies over the last three-thousand years. We still use Babylonian names for the months of the Hebrew calendar and we use Aramaic as well as Greek and Persian words in our daily halakhic studies and rulings. We act as a living treasury for the world’s foreign cultures, both modern and ancient.
We have witnessed the downfall of empires, the sacking of great and famous cities and the toppling of numerous kings. We have roamed this earth for so long that there is little in human culture and practice that our people have not seen and absorbed.
The first of these is in this week’s parasha, Bo. The great Egyptian superpower is on the brink of collapse due to a series of plagues that have brought its infrastructure to a grinding halt. Pharaoh has finally admitted his guilt to Moshe regarding the Hebrew slaves and the Children of Israel witness it all on the eve of their redemption. From the Egyptian devastation emerges a promising, young Hebrew nation.
Our haftara highlights this unique aspect of the nation of Israel. The disintegration of Egypt is paradigmatic in our history. A country falls around us as we emerge from the rubble to face a new day, taking with us the emergent elements of the culture and thinking of the host society.
Yirmiyahu’s prophecy and many like it which herald the demise or punishment of a foreign nation is odd in that it is quite certain that this was not a prophecy delivered directly to any of those nations! It was a message to Israel and we were meant to understand something about our involvement with these nations and our future. It is quite explicit and is stated twice for emphasis. After heralding the destruction of Egypt at the hands of the Babylonian king Nebukhadnezzar, the Jewish people are assured:
Have no fear my servant Yaakob, be not dismayed, Israel!
I will deliver you from far away, your folk from their land of captivity;
And Yaakob again shall have calm and quiet with none to trouble him.
Have no fear my servant Yaakob, declares God
For I am with you.
I will make an end of all the nations among which I have banished you,
But I will not make an end of you!
I will chastise you justly and will not abolish you. (46:27-28)
All other nations will fade, but not Israel. There were others who noticed this phenomenon; some with a great deal of anxiety and even hatred aimed at us. Mark Twain was of the more benign observers and famously wrote:
Other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all…All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains.
There is no other nation that has lived as long and travelled the globe as extensively as we have. In our meta-mind there runs a parallel history to that which was written by the ‘winners’ of every generation. In our hearts live the countless tastes, languages, perspectives, customs, mores and music that have been developed by innumerable ethnicities and cultures which have faded into the shadows of time. There is something of each civilisation that finds its survival in the repository of the timeless living spirit of the Jewish people. Even the ancient beauty of Egypt.
Equip yourself for exile, fair Egypt…Egypt, a beautiful heifer. (46:19-20)
No amount of study (Talmud or otherwise) can replace the education and influence that life and experience afford. Nothing can replace the effects created by traversing the ‘desert of the nations’ over eons. It is in no small part the splendour and glory of the Jewish people. It is the source of creativity and innovation of the nation of Israel. It is something, that we not only should recognise and to which we should call our children’s attention, but also embrace and celebrate.
Rabbi Joseph Dweck
 Ezekiel 20:35
15a Warning of Plague of Locusts (10:1-11)
15b Plague of Locusts (10:12-20)
16 Plague of Darkness (10:21-29)
17a Preparation (11:1-3)
17b Warning of Last Plague (11:4-8)
17c Reason for Pharaoh’s stubbornness (11:9-10)
17d The First Pesach (12:1-20)
18a Moshe tells the people about Pesach (12:21-28)
18b Last Plague: Death of Firstborn (12:29-36)
19 Exodus (12:37-42)
20a Laws of Pesach (12:43-50)
20b That very day God took them out (12:51)
21 Pesach for all generations, Tefillin (13:1-10)
22a Laws of firstborns, Tefillin, memory (13:11-16)
Taken from, ‘Torah for Everyone’ by Rabbi Dr Raphael Zarum, Dean of LSJS