Friday, January 12, 2018

Haftarat Va-Eira: How Trust and Betrayal are Related

Betrayal is unfortunately something that we all encounter in life. When an enemy strikes a blow or undermines us, we're ready for it. We don't expect anything different. But a friend, an ally, an advocate; when they betray us, it stings beyond
words. Our Haftarah this week offers an interesting gloss on the Torah portion - a foe turning over into a friend... but then ultimately double-crossing our ancestors. But so what? Why should we care about a prophet, 2,500 years ago, railing against the betrayal of a would-be-ally? Well, for one, history repeats itself, especially when we don't learn from it. Understanding our past helps us be more deliberate, proactive, and vigilant in the present and for the future. And second, when we look closely, the imagery and the emotions are strikingly familiar. We all know betrayal, and we know how much it hurts; seeing ourselves in the stories of our ancestors truly makes the text come alive!

Our Torah portion, Va-Eira, tells of the clash between Pharaoh and Moses, leading up to the Ten Plagues and eventually the Exodus from Egypt. There are "good guys"; God and Moses. And there's a villain; Pharaoh.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Haftarah - written centuries later - knows a world where Egypt is NOT the "bad guy" anymore! In 586 BCE, the small nation of Judah, with its capital, Jerusalem, was desperately trying to hold off the might Babylonian Empire, approaching from the north. They turned to the south-west, to Egypt, in hopes that this other powerful kingdom would defend them against the Babylonians. They might have been our saviors! Imagine how differently we'd have remembered the Exodus story if THAT had happened... But Egypt does nothing to save Judah, and the Babylonians capture Jerusalem, destroy our Temple, and enslave the people. It is in this context that the prophet Ezekiel writes about the untrustworthy Egyptians.

Ezekiel declares: "You [Egypt] were a staff of reed to the House of Israel: When they grasped you with the hand, you would splinter and wound all their shoulders. When they leaned on you, you would break and make their loins unsteady"
(Eze. 29:6-7). Pharaoh violated their trust! Perhaps meant to evoke an earlier betrayal, when the Pharaoh who promoted Joseph in the Book of Genesis welcomed Israel with open arms... and a generation later the Egyptians enslaved Joseph's descendants. At its core - and this is where the message shifts (for me) to present day - the pain of the betrayal is the realization that so many people care only about themselves and their own family members. We thought the Egyptians were sharing their home and their land with us, but they were not. We hoped the same Egyptians, centuries later, would come to the aid of a neighbor threatened by a foreign power, but they ignored our plight. And our hopes and expectations make the treachery all the more painful.

This Shabbat is also Martin Luther King weekend. And amidst all the important messages that Dr. King shared with the world, I think one particularly crucial call that we all need to hear is about our interdependence: "All [people] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."
The Torah echoes this very same principle over and over again. It is easy to forget (or just ignore) this directive, because we always have our own needs! "Blood is thicker than water," right?? We should care for our own. And yet, the Torah, the prophets, our entire Jewish history, and our modern prophets like Dr. King remind us that this is false. It has always been false, and it will ALWAYS be false. We are actually interdependent, and we MUST care for one another. We must be there to support others in our society and across our planet, and we have to keep trusting that they will do the same. There may always be betrayal in the world, but we need to challenge ourselves to be better. We need to heal rather than injure, and welcome others with open arms. It truly is our garment of destiny.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Arunbc1987 on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Balabinrm on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Sanba38~commonswiki on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Gorskiya on Wikimedia Commons

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