This week’s haftorah teaches us a profound lesson in arrogance and self dependency. Hashem instructed the prophet Yechezkel to deliver a crushing blow to Pharaoh and his Egyptian empire and predict its total destruction. Hashem said, “Behold I am sending the sword after you that will decimate man and animal. Egypt will lay desolate and ruined….in response to your saying, ‘The river is mine and I developed it.'” (29: 8,9) Hashem held Pharaoh and Egypt fully accountable for their arrogant approach to prosperity crediting their sustenance solely to their technology.
The background for this is that Egypt relies upon the Nile River for her basic existence. Rainfall in Egypt is so scarce and infrequent that she must maintain an elaborate irrigation system for her basic agricultural needs. Over the years, Egyptians grew accustomed to their highly effective system and viewed themselves self sufficient. They viewed the Nile River as their sole provider and regarded its developer, Pharaoh their deity. He was, in truth, responsible for the system’s efficiency and was therefore considered by all, their source of goodness. Pharaoh gladly accepted his title and lured his foolish nation into recognizing him as their deity. Hashem responded to this arrogance and informed Pharaoh that Egypt’s days were numbered. Her mighty empire would soon fall and her country would lay desolate for forty years.
Pharaoh’s absurd status as Egypt’s deity finds is parallel in the ancient Pharaoh of this week’s parsha. Hashem repeatedly chose a special meeting place for Moshe and Pharaoh and instructed Moshe, “Go to Pharaoh in the morning; behold he is going out to the water.” (Shmos 7: 15) Moshe Rabbeinu was sent to meet Pharaoh far from his palace- at the foot of the Nile River. Rashi (ad loc.) explains that Hashem chose this auspicious site in response to Pharaoh’s arrogant claim to the masses. He proclaimed himself as a deity without common bodily needs. In order to preserve this myth, he secretly traveled early each morning to the Nile River to relieve himself there. Hashem therefore chose this perfect moment to send Moshe to remind Pharaoh of his mortality and disclose his secret identity.
In truth, the parallel lines between the Pharaohs extends much further. In our haftorah Yechezkel states in Hashem’s name, “Behold I am turning against you and your river…Neither man nor animal shall pass through the land for forty years.” (29: 10,11) The Sages place special significance on the number forty predicted here. They note the Biblical discussions between Yosef and Pharaoh wherein seven years of famine are mentioned six times. They explain that these refer to forty-two years of ordained famine for Egypt. (see Breishis Rabba 89:9) Tosfos explain that ultimately only seven years were decreed upon ancient Egypt. Yosef intervened on behalf of his household and asked Hashem to limit the famine to seven years. Hashem answered Yosef’s request and Yosef subsequently limited Pharaoh’s dream to seven years of famine. (see Baalei Tosfos to Breishis 41:27) Chazal add that, in reality, only two years of famine transpired. Soon after our patriarch Yaakov Avinu arrived in Egypt he blessed Pharaoh with prosperity and brought the famine to an immediate halt. (see Rashi Breishis 47:19)
Accordingly, forty years of famine remained to be seen. Those were reserved for a later period in history when Egypt would deserve Hashem’s harsh response. In Yechezkel’s days, the time finally arrived and the remaining forty years were decreed upon Egypt.
Chazal’s powerful insight suggests that Egypt was presently suffering for her ancient fault committed one thousand years before. Apparently, this decree of Egyptian desolation was Heavenly ordained many centuries earlier for a similar fault of hers. It follows logically that the earlier Pharaoh must have possessed a similar approach to prosperity to that of the later Pharaoh. Indeed, this was the case and we discover a similar scenario in the earlier Egyptian empire. The Midrash notes a discrepancy in Pharaoh’s dream when expressing it to Yosef. In Pharaoh’s true dream, the Torah reveals him standing above the Nile River. Yet when informing Yosef of his dream Pharaoh conveniently referred to himself standing next to the river. Chazal explain that Pharaoh took full credit for creating and developing his Nile River. In his dream he beheld himself standing above the Nile reflecting his position that, “the river was his and he developed it.” He was, however, embarrassed to reveal this arrogance to Yosef and he carefully altered the truth. (Tanchuma Voeira 8)
We now see a direct corollary between the Pharaohs, both claiming to be the sole source of their prosperity. Hashem initially responded to this abhorrent arrogance and decreed forty-two years of Egyptian desolation. This decree would undoubtedly clarify to Pharaoh who controls prosperity and upon whom everyone must rely. The Nile River was soon to be of no use and Egypt would be forced to recognize Hashem as their ultimate provider. Pharaoh quickly learned his lesson. Mysteriously, once Yaakov came to Egypt and blessed Pharaoh the famine ended. This miracle convinced the ancient Pharaoh that Hashem controlled the world. Once Pharaoh learned his lesson the forty remaining years of famine were suspended. In the interim Egypt developed a hostile attitude towards Hashem and His people. On the heels of Egypt’s recent lesson Hashem completed the process and destroyed the entire Egyptian Empire. It would take many years for Egypt to raise her head in pride and take credit, once again, for her accomplishments.
Now, nearly one thousand years later Egypt returned to her arrogant ways. After her massive devastating blows she finally rebuilt her empire. Pharaoh, in his height of success, began viewing his Nile River as Egypt’s sole source of prosperity. He, like the earlier Pharaoh, maintained that he created the Nile and developed it. Hashem refused to tolerate this arrogance and when the first signs of this absurdity resurfaced Hashem responded harshly. The time had finally arrived for Egypt to experience her long awaited forty years of desolation. Through this, Hashem displayed to Mitzraim and the world over that He controlled the world and provided their prosperity.
The above lesson reminds us never to forget our limited role in our personal success. We must never forget that Hashem is our true provider and He develops and secures our efforts with their ultimate success.
Text Copyright © 2002 Rabbi Dovid Siegel and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rosh Kollel of Kollel Toras Chaim of Kiryat Sefer, Israel.