Vaeira: Lessons to be Learned
Lessons To Be Learned: Ezekiel 28:25 – 29:21
What was the matter with the Children of Israel in this week’s portion? Had it been me, I would have been dancing in the streets celebrating the destruction of my Egyptian masters!
After reading this Haftarah,I suspect that the prophet Ezekiel would not have danced with me. The prophet addresses lessons that Israel and Egypt failed to learn.
The relationship of Israel and Egypt is long and complex. Even our relationship with the Egyptians of the Passover story is more complicated than its surface meaning: “You shall not reject an Egyptian, for you were a sojourner in his land.” (Deuteronomy 23:8) Despite all the Egyptian’s did, we recall our obligation to Egypt for allowing us to settle in their land when we were hungry. The Torah does not portray the story in black and white.
Solomon married the daughter of the Egyptian king (Kings I 11:1) in order to establish warm relations with the power to his south. However, his intentions were not rewarded. His father-in-law, Pharaoh provided Hadad, the Edomite, Solomon’s antagonist, sanctuary in Egypt. (Kings I 11:14-22) But we did not learn from experience.
Soh, the king of Egypt, betrayed Hoshea son of Elah, King of the Ten Tribes. But still, we did not learn.
Hezekiah turned to Pharaoh only to be let down. The Assyrian king, who immediately perceived Hezekiah’s mistake, sent Rabshakeh to Hezekiah to tell him: “Now, upon whom have you placed your trust that you have rebelled against me? You have relied upon the support of this splintered cane, upon Egypt, which, if a man leans on it, it will enter his palm and puncture it; so is Pharaoh, King of Egypt to all who rely on him.” (Kings II 18:21) But still, we did not learn from experience.
The story continues in the few remaining chapters of the Book of Kings, and extends into our own time. Israel, in Biblical times, could not sever its relationship with Egypt, nor can we ignore Egypt even now. Neither nation learns its lessons. Israel did not learn from their experiences with Egypt. Egypt was too self absorbed to appreciate their complex relationship with Israel. Egypt did not learn from its confrontation with the power of God of Israel. The Jewish people did not retain the lessons learned as they witnessed God’s powerful expression of love for them.
The prophet voices God’ anger with Egypt, not for how it enslaved and tortured Israel in the Exodus story, but for their unreliability. Ezekiel witnessed the practical effects of Israel’s unbroken bond with Egypt. Israel, the victim, has never broken the connection. Egypt has been the undependable party. The prophet describes their sense of self-sufficiency, an arrogance fed by the power and the abundance of the Nile.
After suffering a forty-year exile, predicts Ezekiel, Egypt will return, but never again as a great power. They will suffer their own insignificance. Egypt will learn that their power is not their own, but a gift from God. They will be forced to confront the emptiness of their self-aggrandizement. The forces of Nebuchadnezzar, who has been granted God’s blessing, will batter them. Egypt will learn, what it failed to learn from the plagues: power and success, wealth and might, are all gifts from the Almighty.
Ezekiel speaks of the plagues as an opportunity for Egypt to acknowledge God, as has no other nation in history. This nation, once the greatest on earth, has slipped and fell from its glory, not the glory of the pyramids, but the grandeur of clarity, so rare and so precious. The prophet urges us to read this portion from the perspective of the Egyptians, and appreciate that it was actually an opportunity.
What does Ezekiel say about us? If the Egyptians are the objects of Ezekiel’s outcry for having missed an opportunity to recognize God, while they were the “victims” of the miracles, what does it say about us? We were the beneficiaries of the miracles, we have constant reminders in our prayers, in our practices, in our festivals of what we once witnessed with clarity, and yet, not only do we sometimes slip away from the reality we once experienced, but it seems that we have historically had a compulsion to associate and depend on the one nation which could have opened its eyes but chose to close them.
Ezekiel is reminding us to pay attention to all that happens; far too many lessons go unlearned.