This week’s haftara approaches the same historical events that were discussed last week from a different perspective and time. Last week we saw Yechezkel, contemporaneous with the events, delivering his prophecy to Pharaoh of the doom awaiting Egypt. This week Yirmiyahu foresees this same moment, which for him is in the future.
But while Yechezkel’s vision is concerned with divine justice and in showing how accounts are settled by the Creator, Yirmiyahu’s mission is one of consolation. For him, the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash is still a future event, and the reward of Nevuchadnezzar for performing such horrific “service” is far from his mind. Dynasties rise and fall, nations conquer and obliterate one another – but not Israel. At the end of a cruel exile they will be forgiven, returned to their land, and restored to sovereign nationhood.
“Do not fear, my servant Yaakov… I will rescue you from great distances and your descendants from the lands where they will be imprisoned…” (Yirmiyahu 46:27). In the end, justice will be served and all the nations who oppressed Israel will be punished, but Israel will at last be redeemed.
Last week Pharaoh was compared to a crocodile, an analogy emphasizing the reptilian nature of Egypt. Egypt was slow to action but cold-blooded and cruel when seeking to feed its appetites. This week Yirmiyahu introduces another animal analogy which receives more attention in future commentaries. Egypt is compared to a cow, fatted for the slaughter, and the butcher is coming from the north, whence trouble always seems to come. This motif of the cow appears throughout the Torah, and if you look closely, there is more to it than just being prepared for slaughter.
When we first meet Pharaoh, he is dreaming about the future and his first dream involves cows. We learn that when Yaakov speaks to Pharaoh, the cattle the children of Israel raise are objects of veneration to Egypt. When we leave Egypt and Moshe doesn’t return from Mount Sinai as quickly as we hoped, our ancestors build, naturally, a golden calf.
The Maharal in Ner Mitzvah discusses the dream of Daniel and the different animals to which the nations are compared. Avraham, too, in the Covenant Between the Parts splits different types of animals that our Sages taught represent the different exiles. Egypt, as the first exile, is the cow. Each exile is characterized by a particular spiritual defect and the different animals hint at these. The defining characteristic of Egypt was its people’s lust for physical pleasure and their willingness to debase themselves in pursuit of it. The Egyptians did not cultivate their intellect and spirit as did the Greeks and Romans. The Egyptians only wanted to pleasure their bodies.
While immersed in the Egyptian exile, the people of Israel were affected by these values and became too much like the Egyptians. It became necessary for Hashem to take us out before we became altogether like the inhabitants of the place of our exile and lost all interest in spirituality because we’d become immersed in hedonism.