This week’s Torah portion of Vaera begins the ten plagues that decimated Egypt; in the haftorah we find Egypt in the picture again. This time the Jewish people turns to them for help but they are untrustworthy allies, and in the end not only are the Jewish people exiled by Nevuchadnetzar and Babylonia, but Pharaoh and Egypt are also wiped off the face of the earth yet again, this time being conquered by Nevuchadnetzar. While this was happening the prophet Yechezkel relates that there was a famine in the land of Egypt for forty years, which the Radak and Rashi both say corresponds to forty of the forty two years of famine that Pharaoh in the times of Yosef dreamt about. Indeed, it says “the dream” in the Torah three times, once when Pharaoh actually dreamt it, once when he told it over to Yosef, and once when Yosef explained the dream. In the dream Pharaoh saw 7 weak cows and 7 weak stalks, which hinted to the years of famine: 7 + 7 = 14, multiplied by 3 = 42, so the famine was supposed to be for forty two years, but was cut short after two years when Yaakov came to Egypt. However, the remaining forty years were decreed to happened in the times of Yechezkel, when Egypt would be conquered by Babylonia. In the 27th year of Nevuchadnetzar’s reign, 7 years after the destruction of the first Beis Hamikdash, he conquered Egypt. The end of the forty years of Egypt being a wasteland was when Belshatzar son of Evil Murdock, son of Nevuchadnetzar, took over the reign of Babylonia, which was the year Persia started to gain power. This began the downfall of Babylonia and the redemption of the Jewish people back to Israel, to eventually rebuild the Second Beis Hamikdash in the days of Koresh, King of Persia.
The prophet Yechezkel says about Egypt: “It shall be the lowest of the kingdoms and shall no longer exalt itself above the nation, for I will diminish their number so that they shall not domineer over the nations” (Yechezkel 29:15). The Yalkut Shimone quoting a Michilta in parshas Bishalach comments on this pasuk: “And so it says ‘They lay together, they do not rise; they were extinguished, like a flaxen wick they were quenched’ (Yeshayahu 43:17). This is coming to teach you that there was no other kingdom as lowly than Egypt, but they took power temporarily for the sake of the Jewish people’s honor. When He compares the kingdoms He compares them to cedars, ‘Behold Assyria is a cedar of Lebanon’ (Yechezkel 31:3). He also says, ‘I will wipe out the Emori from amongst you, who were as tall as cedars’ (Amos 2:9). It also says, ‘The tree that you saw, which grew and became strong’ (Daniel 4:17). When He compares the Egyptians, He compares them to straw as it says, ‘It consumes them like straw’ (Shemos 15:7). When He compares the kingdoms He compares them to silver and gold as it says, ‘That image had a head of fine gold, its chest and its arms were of silver’ (Daniel 2:32). However when He compares Egypt He only compares them to lead as it says, ‘They sank like lead’ (Shemos 15:10). When He compares the kingdoms he compares them to beasts as it says, ‘And four huge beasts’ (Daniel 7:3). When He compares Egypt, He compares them to foxes as it says, ‘Seize for us [the Egyptian] foxes’ (Shir Hashirim 2:15). Antoninus asked Rebbe, ‘I want to go to Alexandria [to conquer it] will a king stand up against me and be victorious over me?’ Rebbe answered, ‘I don’t know, never the less it is written amongst us that the land of Egypt cannot sustain a king, ruler, or minister as it says, ‘It shall be the lowest of the kingdoms’ (Yechezkel 29:15).”
During the times of Yosef through Jewish slavery in Egypt, the Egyptians ruled over not only the Jewish people, but also the entire world. This was to the benefit of the Jews, for all the kings would pay Egypt taxes. This was all part of Hashem’s plan – so that in the end it would increase the honor of the Jews when they collected the Egyptian spoils in Egypt before leaving, and after the splitting of the sea.
Yet this Egyptian power was temporary, and merely veneer, as the Vilna Gaon on the Mechilta explains: the very fact that Egypt is compared to a fox is to show that it was the lowliest kingdom.It gained power only for the ultimate purpose of honoring the Jewish people. The Netzi”v adds that the rest of the kingdoms were compared to cedars, even in their defeat, because they were truly nations of great strength and might. Indeed, the Torah could have said about the Egyptians that they ‘sank like gold,’ but because of their lowliness they were compared to something lowly. The end of the story with the Roman Emperor Antoninus and Rebbe, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, is brought to illustrate why the Torah compares the Egyptians to straw: because they never really had power; rather, they were underdogs to the other kingdoms. The Netzi”v points out that Egypt never had a ruler who could stand up against any foreign ruler who attacked them at any time in history. This is what the pasuk meant when it said: ‘It shall be the lowest of the kingdoms;’ out of the four kingdoms who ruled over the entire world, they were the most insubstantial.
Why did Hashem create a situation where Egypt would always be a weak, lowly empire throughout history, and had the spotlight just once, ruling over the whole entire world for the sake of Jewish honor? Why couldn’t Hashem have orchestrated the Jew’s redemption and collection of wealth from a nation known throughout history to be a great and mighty nation?
It would seem that doing it in this fashion adds another degree of honor to the Jewish people. By Hashem giving it His special touch by purposefully orchestrating a scenario totally out of the norm, by making an insubstantial nation into temporarily the most powerful empire in the world simply to give honor to His children, is an added level of importance, no matter how trivial it looks. It still makes for an appreciable difference, which was worth changing all of history for.
A person can show a tremendous amount of love and respect by giving someone a very expensive gift. But even a more humble gift, given along with a personal touch, shows that you care a lot more for your fellow and his or her honor, which makes for a difference.