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Hidden in the recesses of this week’s parsha, which is famous for its “justice, justice you shall seek” (and rarely find), are the laws governing a king. The details are remarkably short and remarkably unking-like. The king must be chosen by God, must be an Israelite, may not accumulate many horses, may not have many wives, cannot amass excessive gold and silver, and must have a copy of the Torah beside him. And there, in the middle, we read: “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’.” This warning, not to return to Egypt, does not appear elsewhere in the Torah.
But that’s a minor matter. The real question is what’s wrong with going back to Egypt? Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz enumerates two main reasons, one geographical and the other behavioral. He cites Maimonides who takes the geographical tack: “It is permitted to dwell anywhere in the world, except for the Land of Egypt. . . it is forbidden to settle there.” And this from the person who was the chief physician of the king of Egypt. But even more strangely, he singles out the city of Alexandria as THE city in Egypt in which Jews should not settle.
Why? Because from the 3rd century BCE, 1400 years before Maimonides, Alexandria was a thriving Jewish center. And very Hellenized. In fact the Septuagint, the first translation of the Bible, into Greek, was undertaken to accommodate the Jews in Alexandria. Geography = assimilation.
The commentator Nachmanides has a simpler explanation. The Egyptians and the Canaanites both performed rituals and practices that God did not want the Israelites to copy. The Israelites in Canaan were commanded to rid the country of the original tribes for that reason. Egypt was as bad.
But as I read this, a question comes to mind. You can’t go back to Egypt but you can go back to Berlin, the IN place today for business and relocating, and for the good life. In other words, the same things that tempted the Israelites in the desert and in Canaan: material comfort.
But what about our history in Egypt and Germany? Shouldn’t we not go back because one enslaved us and the other slaughtered us? That raises some uncomfortable questions.
If we can’t go back to Egypt or Germany shouldn’t that mean we can’t go back to Spain or Portugal. Can we separate our past from our present? If so, at what point can we disconnect our historical baggage and say it’s ok to live in a place that played a horrible role in our history. If we can’t, that would mean no England, no France, no Italy, no most of the other countries of the western world, almost all of which have Jewish bloodstains – some larger some smaller – on their history books. Maybe Bulgaria.
When do we disconnect from the historical past and say, OK, this former death-camp is now kosher. And what does all this have to do with Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur?
The High Holy Days are about the connection between our past and present and future, with an emphasis on the present, I believe. With just a little digging we know where we are. We may not like to think about where we have been, both in terms of our geographical history and our behavioral history (what we did right and especially what we did wrong). And I’m not talking about disconnecting from our own personal history. That’s another thing.
One trend in psychology today says that the past should be left alone. It is gone. Dead. Buried. Kaput. But is it? Even when we want it to be, it isn’t. It’s down there, nudging us….. We have to acknowledge the bad that others did and that we did, and then decide how to ensure that it does not rule our lives. This is like the biblical injunction against Egypt. Cut off contact and don’t go back there, to our problematic past: from here on, we don’t have to aggravate ourselves about what we did/what we should have done in the past. We are now tabula rasa and must work to make our future better.
More vexing than the question of should we do something like that, is the question can we do something like that? Do we really have such control over ourselves? Probably not. Even those who say they can compartmentalize their thinking at will can’t really do it (if they would admit the truth).
Then come Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, with the message: yes, we did wrong or we did what we shouldn’t or didn’t mean to or meant to but are sorry we did – all that’s in the past. That’s the Egypt we won’t go back to. Now we can start afresh. What was, will continue to be there but we won’t let it get us off track. We are being given official permission to get on with our lives. Is that really the “not going back to Egypt” the parsha is talking about? Well, it’s a stretch, but not so far-fetched when you think about it.
I want to wish you all a Shana Tova. May we all leave our Egypts far behind and enjoy a happy, healthy, peaceful and positive new year.
See you next year