This week’s haftorah teaches us a profound lesson in arrogance and self sufficiency. The prophet Yechezkel delivered a powerful message to the Egyptian empire predicting its downfall and total destruction. Yechezkel told the Egyptian Pharaoh, “So says Hashem, ‘Behold I will bring the sword against you and I will destroy man and animal from you and the land of Egypt will be desolate and ruined….in response to your saying that the river is yours and you developed it.'” Hashem held the Egyptians severely responsible for their arrogant attitude regarding their prosperity. Egypt is a unique country which relies heavily upon the Nile River for its existence. Rainfall in Egypt is quite infrequent and an elaborate irrigation system is necessary to provide even the basic levels of growth. The Egyptians of those times became well acclimated to the system and began perceiving themselves as self sufficient. Unlike other countries that relied upon rain, Egypt possessed a self-contained system of success. They viewed the Nile River as their provider and even saw their Pharaoh as some type of deity. He was responsible for the efficiency of the system and, by definition, became credited as being the source of their goodness. Pharaoh accepted his title and claimed that the Nile was actually his creation and that he had developed it as the provider of Egypt. Hashem responded to this arrogance and informed Pharaoh that his days were numbered. The time had come for the Egyptian empire to fall and for Egypt to become a totally desolate land.
This ridiculous notion of Pharaoh as a deity has its parallel in this week’s sidra. Hashem said to Moshe (Sh’mos 7:15) “Go to Pharaoh in the morning behold he is going out to the water.” Moshe Rabbeinu was given explicit instructions to meet Pharaoh away from his palace at the Nile River. Rashi (ad loc) explains that this auspicious meeting place was designated in response to Pharaoh’s arrogant claim to the masses. He maintained that he was a deity and was not subject to any physical needs and constraints. He therefore found it necessary to wake early each morning and travel secretly to the Nile River in order to tend to his physical needs. Hashem chose this exact moment to send His messenger Moshe to Pharaoh to remind him that he was human and that his secret identity was discovered.
This familiar pattern of the Pharaohs extends further and, in truth, a direct corollary can be seen between the earlier Pharaoh and the Pharaoh of Yechezkel’s era. In the haftorah Yechezkel describes Egypt’s downfall and states, “Therefore behold I (Hashem) am turning against you and your river and I will make the land of Egypt ruined and desolate… Neither the foot of man nor the foot of animal shall pass through it for forty years.” Our Chazal (Breishis Rabba 89:9) place special significance on these forty years of desolation. They explain that the phenomena of the famine is mentioned six times in the discussions between Yosef and Pharaoh. This indicates that a total of forty-two years of famine was actually decreed upon Egypt. Tosfos (Breishis 41, 27 ) explain that Yosef interpreted only seven years of famine because Yosef turned to Hashem and prayed that only seven of those years materialize during his lifetime. Out Chazal (see Rashi 47, 19) add that in actuality only two years of famine transpired because when Yaakov Avinu arrived in Egypt and blessed Pharaoh with prosperity the famine came to an immediate halt. Chazal explain that forty years of the famine were put on hold and it was now time for this earlier prophecy to be fulfilled.
This powerful insight of Chazal suggests that Egypt was presently suffering for the fault she committed nearly one thousand years earlier. This decree of desolation and destruction had been heavenly ordained to befall Egypt many centuries ago. It follows logically that the earlier Pharaoh must have possessed a similar approach to prosperity as did the latter. Indeed this was the case and we discover a similar scenario in the earlier Egyptian empire. The commentators take note of an intentional inaccuracy in Pharaoh’s wording when relating his dream to Yosef. In Pharaoh’s true dream he is seen standing above the Nile River, yet in relating this dream Pharaoh alters this point and tells of himself standing next to the river. Chazal comment (see Tanchuma Vaera 8) that Pharaoh truly considered himself a deity who created and developed the Nile River. He was seen standing above it because he maintained, “The river is mine and I have developed it.” Pharaoh, however, was embarrassed to reveal this arrogance to Yosef and therefore omitted this nuance.
We now realize the direct corollary between the two Pharaohs, both claiming to be the source of their prosperity. In response to this arrogant attitude of total self dependency Hashem decreed forty two years of destruction and desolation. Through this, Hashem was displaying that it was He who controls prosperity and that everyone, Pharaoh and Egypt included, depend upon Hashem. Pharaoh finally accepted this message when Yaakov Avinu arrived in Egypt. Mysteriously, when Yaakov came and blessed Pharaoh with prosperity the famine came to a sudden halt. Pharaoh was thereby that convinced that it was Hashem who actually controlled the world and the forty remaining years were suspended until this arrogant attitude would reappear. Now, nearly one thousand years later Egypt returned to her ancient practices. After all the devastating blows Egypt had suffered she finally rebuilt her empire. Pharaoh, following his predecessors now turned to his Nile River and claimed to be the sole source of prosperity. Hashem refused to tolerate such arrogance and decreed upon Egypt her long awaited curse of forty years of desolation. Hashem reminded the Egyptians and the entire world that it is He who controls the world and that everyone ultimately depends upon Him.
Text Copyright © 1996 Rabbi Dovid Siegel and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rosh Kollel of Kollel Toras Chesed of Skokie.
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