Lamentations: First Kinah – Line 11
“We have stretched out our hands to Egypt…” While the Assyrians trapped us like a hunter. After the murder of Gedaliah, the Jews were terrified of the anticipated fury of Nebuchadnezzar and they ran away to Egypt
despite being warned by Yirmeyahu not to leave Israel . Those who ran were wiped out. This story contains one of the most powerful prophecies of the entire Tanach :
The Jews had good reason to be terrified of Nebuchadnezzar’s anger. Gedaliah was a Jewish governor appointed by Nebuchadnezzar as a gift to the remnant of Jews he allowed to remain in Israel. Gedaliah was assassinated by a Jew which would understandably be seen by Nebuchadnezzar as an act of rebellion. They fully expected Nebuchadnezzar to return to Jerusalem and wipe out any Jews who remained. However, they first asked Yirmeyahu whether they should run away to Egypt or not.
Yirmeyahu was hesitant to answer them because he had been prophesizing for close to 40 years and they had never listened to his words. The people swore that they would listen and Yirmeyahu prayed for God’s answer. “Thus said God, the Lord of Israel, to whom you sent me to present your supplication before Him: If you remain in this land, I will build you and not overthrow, I will plant you and not uproot; for I regret the punishment I have brought upon you. Do not be afraid of the king of Babylon, whom you fear, do not be afraid of him-declares God-for I am with you to save you and to rescue you from his hands. I will dispose him to be merciful to you: he shall show you mercy and bring you back to your own land. But if you say, “We will not stay in this land”…”No! We will go to the land of Egypt…” If you turn your faces to Egypt, and you go and sojourn there, the sword that you fear shall overtake you there in the land of Egypt….”
The prophecy is simple; I am sorry about the destruction and exile and I will fix it now. All you have to do is stay. God doesn’t even ask them to repent. He simply asks them to stay in Israel! There are numerous midrashim that say, “If the Jews had done…. The Temple would have been built and lasted forever.” This is a prophecy that says it explicitly. But they ran to Egypt. They didn’t stay and they were wiped out.
The above story is important for another reason. When Yirmeyahu finished his prophecy the Jews had unlimited potential. Simply by remaining in Israel the world would have been fixed forever. They had eternal potential. They forfeit all of that potential simply by refusing to believe that it was there. Their running to Egypt is symbolic of all lost potential. More so potential that is forfeit by refusing to believe that is there. This is a problem that continues to pervade our people in our time. How many of us are aware of the potential we have? How many connect to the potential we are provided through Mitzvot, Prayer and Torah study? How many students are taught to believe in their potential and develop it? Each Jew who is does not believe in his potential is repeating the mistake of “running away to Egypt.” (Rabbi Meir used to say, “When the Jews are meritorious they testify about their own potential. ”)
In the same prophecy God says that He will make Nebuchadnezzar bring you back to your land. God is saying that He uses Nebuchadnezzar at will. God can make Nebuchadnezzar do whatever God pleases. This too is a fundamental message. All the powers of the world are simply agents of God. It is simply a function of God’s Will to have them restore the Jews to Israel in peace and security. Each time we forget this we are repeating the error of “running to Egypt.”
“What would the Ten Tribes do ? They would exchange olive oil for wheat with the Egyptians and send the wheat to Assyria so that if anyone would attack them, they could rely on Egypt and Assyria for support. This is what the Prophet Hosea refers to when he says, ‘Ephraim (the Ten Tribes) tends the wind and pursues the gale; He is forever adding illusion to calamity. Now they make a covenant with Assyria, now oil is carried to Egypt.”
They foolishly depended on alliances instead of on God. (See Hosea 5:13: “Yet when Ephraim became aware of his sickness, Judah of his sores, Ephraim repaired to Assyria-He sent envoys to a patron king.” “Instead, Ephraim has acted like a silly dove with no mind: They have appealed to Egypt! They have gone to Assyria! ”
Alshich : “Now that we have been exiled we must pay for the very wheat we sent to Assyria for free.” This relates back to the idea of Mahapecha, reversal of fortune that we saw in the second stanza.