The destruction of Judea and of the First Temple were accompanied by region-wide upheaval and carnage, all wrought by one ruthless and powerful monarch—Nebuchadnezzar, emperor of Babylonia. These events were foreseen in detail by the prophets of Israel, who warned not only of the looming Jewish destruction, but also of the Babylonian onslaught against many of Israel’s neighboring states. (The destruction of Judea was due to the sins of its people, while that of their neighbors was in large measure because of their malicious joy at the Jewish catastrophe, and their mistreatment of the Jews before and after it—in some cases right until the Babylonian assault against those nations.)

Many of these detailed prophecies were uttered by Ezekiel. Ezekiel had been exiled to Babylon with many of his fellow Jewish brethren, but Jerusalem was not yet destroyed, and its neighbors had not yet met the full wrath of Nebuchadnezzar.

Egypt, for one, had taken on to fight Babylon. But just as in the time of the Exodus, Egypt would once again suffer a great downfall.

Egypt to be battered—again

The reading begins with the future Jewish return to their land after their time of exile. The Jewish people would yet rebuild their homes and vineyards, and dwell in them securely.

As with many of these prophecies, they can be said to have been partially fulfilled with the rerun of the Jews from Babylonia seventy years after the destruction of the First Temple. That return, however, was far from complete in its scope and in the conditions that prevailed at that time, which leaves the full realization of these prophecies for the future era of Moshiach.

At this point Ezekiel is instructed to turn his attention to the Egyptian empire. Throughout the generations, the Pharaohs of Egypt saw themselves as gods who needed no assistance from, and were not accountable to, any power above themselves. This was substantiated by the fact that the Nile river would irrigate the land, and no help from “above”—i.e., rain—was necessary.

In this reading, the land of Egypt is compared to the Nile itself, its mighty warriors to the fish therein, and Pharaoh himself to a great Nile creature (the tanin, possibly a crocodile). G‑d would extract the large “fish” out of the “water,” and they would be scattered in the fields and deserts. Egypt would be ravaged and desolate, which would for all time drive home the lesson that the Pharaohs were powerless and helpless after all, and entirely in the hands of the one Creator.

As mentioned, another contributing cause for this punishment of Egypt was their treachery towards the Jewish people. The Judean kings had paid great sums of money to Egypt in return for a pledge to come to their aid in the event of a Babylonian attack against Judea. But when the attack came, the Egyptian army fled, their promises amounting to naught.

As a result, Egypt would be desolate for forty years. After this the people would return to their land, but it would never return to its original glory. It would never again be considered a great influence in the world, and no other nation would ever be subordinate to it again.

It’s the deed that counts

The last segment of the haftarah is interesting indeed. The Almighty describes to Ezekiel the great effort that Nebuchadnezzar and his army put into one of their great military campaigns: the battle against Tyre. So much effort—and they had not been duly rewarded for it… The commentaries explain that after the fall of Tyre, the (Mediterranean) sea rose and flooded all the spoils that the Babylonian army had gathered for themselves.

G‑d assures the prophet that the Babylonian people and their king would not lose out. Their campaign against Egypt would bring them much human and material spoils, which would make up for the loss of the spoils of Tyre.

This requires some explanation. Was G‑d actually concerned that the imperialistic and sadistic Nebuchadnezzar get his “fair share” from his attack on Tyre? True, Tyre was one of the places which G‑d had slated for destruction at that time, and this was to be carried out by Nebuchadnezzar.1 But the Babylonian king was not at all motivated by the divine decree; it was shere greed and love of power that drove his imperialistic ambitions. Tyre was a strategic commercial city, and it was also key to his next major target, Egypt. Why would any reward be due for such actions?

In one of his talks, the Lubavitcher Rebbe offered a profound explanation for this.

One of the great principles of Torah is that “the deed is the main thing”.2 The primary objective and achievement in a mitzvah is the bond and connection with G‑d, the Giver of this command, that is created as a result of the mitzvah. Although the intention, meaning and experience that inform the mitzvah are vital, these all are subsidiary to the primary task—the actual performance of the mitzvah.

This was one of the major changes that was brought about with the giving of the Torah at Sinai. Before this event, the objective of a mitzvah was indeed the elevation and experience of the individual—to maximize the level to which he or she could elevate themselves. The actual mitzvah action was secondary, a means to this end. There was, however, no ability to be elevated beyond the capabilities of man.

At the giving of the Torah, G‑d vested His very will in the mitzvot, and thus they became the medium through which G‑d Himself can be reached—something otherwise impossible for the finite human being. As a result, the primary aspect of a mitzvah is not the experience and feeling it brings, but rather that this action fulfills G‑d’s will and thus connects us to Him.

One fundamental corollary of the above is that the connection to G‑d forged by a mitzvah is real, regardless of what the person makes of it, or even if he is entirely oblivious of it. This is why the actual deed of the mitzvah is of first and foremost importance.

The story of Nebuchadnezzar and his campaign against Tyre is a powerful example of this. Regardless of what intentions this man and his people had, their conquest of Tyre was a fulfilment of the will of G‑d. The verse indeed stresses the “labor” or “actions” of the Babylonians, which earned them reward—not their intentions. For this they deserved some level of reward, which G‑d guaranteed they would receive.

One of the amazing lessons to be learned from this is that any good deed done by any person must be thanked and recognized, even if they clearly had an ulterior motive in doing so. Nothing can take away the factual good that is done by a good deed, regardless of the circumstances. Moreover, while we can be certain that the wicked Nebuchadnezzar had no good intentions in doing what he did, a Jew has kindness and mercy built into his or her very being. Even though on the face of it the Jew’s good deed may have been driven by self-interest, his or her deeper altruistic self must have had at least some part in this act of kindness.3