HAFTARAT BO – Jeremiah 46:13-28 – The meaning of Omnipotence
An isolated visionary, whose words were rarely heeded, the prophet Jeremiah spent forty years prophesying in Judah, during the late seventh century and early sixth century BCE, when the two great powers of Babylon and Egypt were contending for supremacy in the region. There is an obvious connection with the parashah: Just as Parashat Bo relates the final plagues against Egypt and the defeat of Pharaoh by the Eternal One, so in the haftarah, Jeremiah prophesies that Egypt will be defeated by Divine intervention once again.
But despite the obvious similarities, the context in which prophet was delivering his message was very different: In the haftarah Jeremiah speaks out against the alliance Judah has made with Egypt in order to keep Babylon at bay, and predicts that Babylon will prevail. His critique exposes the realpolitik of life for a tiny nation at the mercy of superpowers.
Judah was, indeed, conquered by Babylon in 586 BCE. However, that wasn’t the end of the story. One of the main purposes of the haftarah is homiletical – to chastise and denounce wrong-doing, and then conclude with words of hope or consolation. And so, haftarat Bo closes with Jeremiah predicting the end of the people’s captivity in Babylon, and their return – which also came to pass: the Persians defeated the Babylonians, and King Cyrus allowed the exiles to come back to the land, and to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.
It feels very neat – but something else is going on: having defeated Egypt, why did the Eternal One allow Babylon to triumph over Judah? By focusing on the eventual restoration of Judah, one may ignore a more powerful theological message: Adonai Tz’va’ot – ‘the Eternal One of Hosts’ (46:18), who punished Egypt, also punished Judah; the Eternal One, who is ‘with’ Israel (:28), is, also, ha-Melech – ‘the Sovereign’ (ibid.) – of all, who condemns wrong conduct in every place; as we read in the final phrase of the haftarah: v’nakkeih lo anakkeka – ‘I will not, indeed, exempt you’ (:28).