January 2008, Contributed by
Asher ben Shimon
Torah Portions Archive
At one point in Jewish history, there was an oppressing
force that forbade public reading from the Torah. It was then that
the rabbis instituted to read a portion from the prophets similar to
the Torah portion that would have been read that week under normal
circumstances. This custom remained even after the oppressor left and
that's why we still read the Haftarah every week after we read from
This week we will be reading from the book Yechezkel (Ezekiel) who
prophesized about different kingdoms in his time. The first prophecy
is directed against Egypt who had aroused G-d's wrath. Hashem
notifies Yechezkel about the calamities that were about to befall
Egypt. They were going to be captured and exiled for forty years.
When they would return to their homeland, they would remain a low and
insignificant kingdom forever. Then they would know that "I am the
Following is a prophecy directed to Nevuchadnetzar king of Bavel who
was going to receive Egypt in reward for conquering Tzur (Tyre). (The
leader of Tzur had proclaimed himself a g-d and by doing so, signed
his own verdict. The entire city was destroyed by the above mentioned
king. It had taken Nevuchadnetzar a very long time to conquer the
city and when he finally managed to get in to this coastal fortress,
a flood swiped away all the booty. So although it had been a
strategic victory, it had not been a very profitable one.
The connection between the first prophecy regarding the fall of the
Egyptian empire and this week's Torah portion `Va'era', is obvious.
We read about the ten plagues that befall the Egyptians of those days
for not allowing the Jewish people to leave. The connection with the
second prophecy, regarding Nevuchadnetzar's reward, requires
explanation though. The focus in the prophecy is on Nevuchadnetzar.
That he was receiving Egypt as a reward, is only a technical detail.
In our Torah portion we only read about Egypt being destroyed, slowly
but surely, but we don't find anywhere that someone was receiving it
as a reward for a good deed.
According to one opinion we therefore don't read the second prophecy,
but the generally accepted custom is that we do. Why do we, if it has
no connection with the Torah portion?
When we say that the Haftarah has to be similar to the Torah portion,
it doesn't mean that the STORY has to be completely similar. Torah
comes from the word Hora'ah which means a lesson and instruction. The
lesson we can learn from Nevuchadnetzar receiving Egypt as a reward
for conquering Tzur is a detail in the same message we can take from
Egypt being destroyed both in the story in Yechezkel as well as in
Last week in Shemot, we learned about Moshe being told by Hashem to
go to Pharaoh to ask him to let the Jewish people go. Pharaoh said
no, and in order to show his full control he came out with new,
harsher decrees. We finished off by Moshe returning to Hashem with a
complain. "Why did you send me? You only made it harder for the
The answer is what we start Va'era with. Hashem tells Moshe: "I have
heard their cries and I will take them out and save them etc. and I
remembered the covenant I made with their forefathers to free them
Moshe may have been very pleased to hear that Hashem was finally
going to take care of the problem but how did it answer his
question "why did you make it WORSE after you sent me?".
Obviously it were the cries of pain and anguish that came as a result
of new wave of decrees that caused Hashem to act. That is what Hashem
answered Moshe. Now that the Jewish people really suffered they can
be redeemed. What was the purpose of all the suffering?
The ultimate purpose of the slavery in Egypt was to prepare for the
giving of the Torah. The Torah is G-d's wisdom. As we mentioned
several times, it is per definition IMPOSSIBLE for a human being
limited by the boundaries of nature, to have any connection to
Hashem's UNLIMITED, infinite wisdom. We explained that that is the
reason why we have to say the words of Torah out loud even though in
general that disturbs the intellectual faculties. Only when we go out
of our own self, we can have some sort of connection to what's higher
The same applies to the Mitzvot. Mitzvah means besides
for `commandment' also `connection'. The same mundane act of eating a
matzah can be making a connection with our creator when it is being
done on Pesach, but won't have any spiritual effect when done on a
In order for limited creatures in a finite universe to be able to
connect with the infinite G-d, both needed a preparation of complete
To the Jewish people this meant slavery and to the world this meant
the ten plagues in Egypt.
It took the increased measures of back braking slavery which were
added by Pharaoh after Moshe requested their leave, that accomplished
the proper nullification of the Jewish people. Although they were
still physically alive, they were so completely exhausted that it
could have been considered as if they had totally no own identity
Pharaoh was besides for a dictator who ruled all his subjects with an
iron fist, also a self proclaimed g-d. In the Haftarah he is
described as "the great crocodile who sits in his river and
proclaims "the river is mine and I have made myself!"". He is symbol
of the epitome of haughtiness.
Pharaoh's pride had to be crushed to ready to world for the descent
of the Torah into this world. Significant progress in that direction
was made by the first seven plagues we read about this week. At the
end of the parsha Pharaoh admits that " Hashem is righteous and I and
my people are the wicked ones."
The prophets usually elaborate on what the Torah (meaning the 5 books
of Moshe here) says in short.
In Yechezkel's prophecy in the Haftarah two reasons are given why
Egypt was worthy of punishment. Firstly because they had promised the
Jewish people help against their enemies and they broke their
promises numerous times. (sounds familiar?). Secondly, as we read a
few verses down the page, because Pharaoh announced that "the river
is mine and I made myself".
Since both reasons are given for the same exact thing, we must say
that they are interconnected somehow.
The reason WHY they did not keep their promises, which is not a very
nice thing to do according to ALL nations, regardless of which
religion they follow, is because of their haughtiness. They thought
so highly of themselves that anyone else was not worthy of
consideration to them.
The Torah also gives us two reasons why Egypt got the ten plagues.
A) "so they will know that I am the L-rd." B) as punishment for
having tortured the Jewish people for so many years.
The Haftarah, by connecting the two reason, explains that there too
the two reasons were one and the same. Because Pharaoh had proclaimed
himself a g-d, he didn't mind treating innocent people in a cruel way
that had not been known to mankind before.
Egypt and Pharaoh were what was holding back the giving of the Torah.
The Torah expects us to act in a manner directly opposite of the
Egyptian behavior. Although the Torah contains 613 mitzvot, most well
known are the Ten commandments. Interestingly, those commandments
deal with very basic issues as honoring parents and not stealing and
murdering. This teaches us that ALL mitzvot have to be fulfilled
solely because they're Hashem's will. Even simple things every normal
nation would include in their laws, we, as Jews, do because they are
divine commandments and NOT because we understand them. Egypt stands
for believing in ones own powers without a G-d, Torah and Judaism
stands for complete self nullification to G-d.
Every Mitzvah consists of two elements. The actual physical deed (the
eating of the matzah), and the spiritual effect it causes in the
When a mitzvah is done with certain intentions, especially those that
are known to the kaballists, they may cause a greater spiritual
We are told that even before the Torah was given, our forefathers
were performing Mitzvot. Their Mitzvot were mainly on a spiritual
level though. It says for instance that the tricks Yakov did with the
pealed branches to cause the sheep to have different looking
offspring generated the same spiritual energy as when we put on
Tefillin. In those days, since here had not been specific
instructions how to draw down the divine energy, different physical
object could be used to achieve the same we do now with our Mitzvot.
A totally new dimension was added to the Mitzvot with the giving of
the Torah on Mt. Sinai. From then onwards a mitzvah was a divine
commandment. The intentions that had been the main aspect before that
time, became of secondary importance. They only enhance the Mitzvot.
Now ANYONE who performs a mitzvah, regardless of his intentions,
fulfills Hashem's will.
The second prophecy in the Haftarah brings out this point.
Nevuchadnetzar received Egypt as a reward for having fulfilled
Hashem's will. (conquering Tzur) The prophet says that the reward was
for the `DEED'. Nevuchadnetzar wasn't Jewish and was not known to be
a very religious man. He was in the process of conquering the entire
world to satisfy his unquenchable thirst for power. Nevertheless,
since he was the one who brought Hashem's will to fruition, he was
the one to be rewarded for it. It wasn't the intention, it was the
To summarize in a few words. The first prophecy teaches us that only
by being selfless we can receive the Torah which we learn from
Egyptians being punished for acting the opposite way. The second
prophecy highlights the point that this can be expressed primarily by
performing simple physical Mitzvot which do not seem to be divine to
To us it means also that now, ever since the Torah was given some
3300 years ago, every mitzvah we do, no matter what our personal
interest may be, is being regarded as a selfless act that connects us
to Hashem for which we deserve a reward.
May Hashem take all the many Mitzvot we have been doing since the
beginning of our existence with or without intention and reward us
for them by bringing us Moshiach NOW!
Translations in Torah Portions of the week are partially taken from the ArtScroll
Stone Edition Chumash and from
Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch Chumash
Torah Portions Archive
here or Torah for Tots