Leave Egypt Behind

Shofetim By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Aug 7, 2013 / 5773 | Philosophy

The Cairo Genizah—a treasure trove of Jewish history rediscovered by Solomon Schechter toward the end of the 19th century (43,000 fragments of which are housed in The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary)—attests to the rich Jewish life that flourished in Egypt and beyond. Such testimony to the success and richness of the Egyptian Jewish community over many hundreds of years is especially surprising given the pronouncement of this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Shofetim. In legislating laws concerning the appointment of a king over Israel, Torah states emphatically, “He shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, since the Lord has warned you, ‘You must not go back that way again’” (Deut. 17:16). How are we to relate to the Torah’s prohibition of returning to Egypt? Is this a blanket prohibition on living in the land of Egypt? Or is this legislation somehow restricted in a particular way?

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch comments:

If this simply meant to forbid a return to Egypt, it would probably just have said it explicitly rather than placing an emphasis on the manner or way of the return . . . For in fact Egypt had been a land of refuge from Palestine from the earliest times of Jewish history. Abraham went down to Egypt because there was a famine in Palestine. For the same reason, Isaac was about to go there and was only restrained by direct instructions from God. Israel’s whole settlement in Egypt was only brought about by the famine in Palestine, which made the sons of Jacob go repeatedly to Egypt to buy food. So the natural fertility of the Egyptian soil gave Egypt an ascendant superiority over other countries and that made other countries, especially Palestine, appear dependent on them. Accordingly, the meaning of this verse is that you will not go from Palestine to Egypt as in the past to obtain from there any national necessities which your own land does not supply. You are not to make yourselves dependent on Egypt. (Commentary on Deuteronomy, 339)

Torah then does not concern itself with the possibility of renewed Jewish settlement in Egypt. The biblical concern within the context of the Israelite king revolves around the quality of the relationship between Israel and Egypt. As the Israelites march toward freedom in their own Land, they are cautioned about the fragility of their status. They are now free, and that freedom cannot be taken for granted. They are forbidden from returning to the same power dynamic—that is to say, they may not once again become dependent on Egypt. From this moment forward, they must demonstrate their economic and political independence. And more than that, Israelite dependence is on God—not on any human construct. By protecting their newfound status and nurturing their relationship with God and Torah, the Israelites ensure that they will never again return to the shackles of Egyptian slavery. One cannot think of a more important message as we enter the month of Elul—preparing for our sacred reunion with God, Torah, and community.

The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.