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The Systems of the Jewish Year

Our Eternal Relationship with Egypt

By Rabbi Sender Haber

Several weeks ago we were saved by coming down to Egypt. In this week’s Parsha we finally leave.

At the Yam Suf Hashem promised that we would not see the Egyptians again.

In Parshas Shoftim Hashem ruled that a king should not have too many horses because they would lead us back to Mitzrayim.

But in Devarim 28:68 we are told that if we misbehave Hashem will put us into ships and send us back.

The truth is that we have a long history with Egypt:

-Avraham went down with his wife because of the famine.
-We were kings there. Later, we were slaves there.
-King Solomon imported his horses from there and was criticized. He was also criticized for his relationship with Pharaoh’s daughter.
-Chizkiyahu allied with Egypt against Assyria. It didn’t work out and he was criticized. The ten tribes disappeared in the ensuing war andwere never seen again.
-After destruction of first Beis Hamikdosh and the assassination of Gedaliah the remaining Jews went against the prophesy of Yirmiyahu and emigrated to Egypt where they assimilated.
-There are many prophesies in which Egypt is prominently spoken of and gets their comeuppance at the end of days.
-The Alexandrian shul in Talmudic times was enormous and there was constant traffic between Jerusalem and Alexandria.
- The Talmud in Succah 51b tells us that Diopluston of Alexandria was a great honor for the torah but it was destroyed because of the prohibition of living in Egypt.
- The Talmud in Gittin 57a reprts that the Alexandrian Jews were happy there and in Egypt and did not mourn for Yerushalayim
- Rambam was apparently beholden to the Sultan and running from the Almohades. He lived in Egypt and may have signed his letters with a statement that he was inconstant violation of the ban on returning to Egypt. (Kaftor Vaferach)
-Additionally, The Karaim were very powerful in Egypt and their place of worship still stands.
-More recently, Rav Ovadiah Yosef emigrated to Egypt at 26 yrs. of age to be chief Rabbi of Cairo.
-The Egyptians are our constant neighbors and we think about them all the time.

This Halacha not to return to Egypt is mentioned in Rambam but not in Shulchan Aruch. It seems that many have returned over the years.

There are several approaches to the reasons for the prohibition and the leniencies that were applied.

Approach One: Depravity of Egypt

The Egyptians were apparently less moral than any other country. They were also Godless due to their deification of the Pharaohs and the Nile. It was not a good place for Jews to hang out. This is the approach of the Ramban. Based on this approach we have two important leniencies:

1) Only prolonged residence is an issue. The Yerushalmi (Sanhedrin Ch. 10) rules that it is permitted to descend to Egypt temporarily. The Aderes adds that if one went temporarily they remain afterward, even permanently.

2) Egypt may be more moral than it once was. Sancheriv mixed everyone up when he conquered so the people of Egypt are no longer the same people. Further, Rabbeinu Bachyei writes that even if they are the same people, they may have changed. They may be more moral now. The third generation of Egyptians is allowed to enter the Jewish nation. They do have the potential to change.

This approach is not totally satisfying. The prohibition to return is mentioned even after the days of Sancheirev and Rabbi Kapach claims that historically the Rambam settled permanently without any duress and even before he got the job with the sultan.

Approach Two: No Moving Backwards

The Yereim explains that only a specific route was prohibited. G-d took us out of Egypt and we are not supposed to return. It is never a good idea to move backwards. As a matter of fact, just leaving Israel is an Issue. The prohibition on going to Egypt is just an extension of that rule.

Based on this it could be understood why the Rambam left Alexandria for El Kahir, which was not part of the original Egyptian kingdom which we left, but it does not explain everything.

Approach Three: National Pride

We need to proud of our nation as Israel. We can’t get too proud of Egypt, even if they are somewhat decent. This appears to be the approach of the Ritva that the prohibition only applies when there is a Jewish monarch and that all of the verses focus on the monarch. Even the Rambam records this law in the Laws of Kings. In a similar vein, others write that the mitzvah only applies if all of the Jews return to Egypt.

The Ritva and Rav Hirsch explain that it is up to us to choose a good country. Egypt is a bad one. The Korban Ha’eidah writes that settling in Egypt is a sign that one does not expect Moshiach.

Based on this, the Aruch Hashulchan writes that in times that Egypt isn’t doing well and there is no pride in being there, the halacha does not apply.

This approach is satisfactory but not very well sourced.

Approach Four: The Arizal

There is an idea in Jewish thought that can give us context to the mitzvah and even to its detractors.

In Jewish thought it is a given that we are influenced by our surroundings both positively and negatively. The Chassidim say that Babi Yar was the site of the battle between Kayin and Hevel. Any place we go has positive and negative vibes. We generally understand this as influence and nurture, but the Zohar actually sees it as Klipos and a real impurity that exists in a specific location and does not go away.

Mitzrayim can be pronounced ‘Metzarim’ or boundaries. Constricted boundaries are not conducive to spiritual growth.

However, within those Metzarim, there exist Nitzotzos, sparks of holiness that remain and must be redeemed. Like a Jew who has never heard a word of Torah, these holy sparks are waiting to be used in the proper way.

That’s what we deal with daily. We find holiness and purpose in the world around us. That is why we went down to Egypt to begin with. Yosef brought G-d to Egypt. Yosef found Asnas in Egypt, and ultimately Yosef let Egypt support the holiest nation.

The Arizal writes that we did such a good job that there were no sparks left in Egypt. We had to get out of there quick and there was no reason to go back.

What an important lesson! Sometimes we go somewhere in life and we grow and accomplish. That doesn’t mean that we need to go back. We haven’t become impervious to harm! We don’t need to run back into a burning house when there are no more victims and we don’t need to put our children through all the trials that we experienced.

That is the Mitzvah not to go back. Never. Not just to Egypt, but anywhere harmful should not be returned to.

But what if we do go back? The Jewish people did at the time of Gedaliah and they were assimilated there. The Karaites were there. Many Jews ended up there. So the sparks are back. And we need to return to elevate those sparks.  Halachically, there was a population shift. Egypt is not the same place it was.

Of course we can’t go back to stay there because we need to be proud of our own country and we need to hope for Moshiach, but we have a mission in Egypt and we may go back to fulfill our role.

Perhaps this was the thinking of the Rambam, of Rav Ovadiah Yosef, and of so many others. There is halachic and mystical basis for returning, but only for the purpose of getting our act together and going to Israel. Those who forgot their mission were criticized and punished.

I was always intrigued by a man I knew when I was younger. He left Egypt in the late forties. His father sold all of his assets and bought a diamond. His mother hid a diamond in her shoe. Before he left he ripped up his stamp collection and broke his tricycle. He didn’t want to leave those in Egypt.

Egypt will never be our home. We can do good stuff there. But we need to be really careful. And when we go we need to leave and not come back. Preferably we should be headed for Israel.

Additional Sources: Rav Kook (Mishetei Kohein p. 143), R’ Kapach on Mishna Torah, Chida (Pesach Einayim 28)

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