Parashat Shoftim

Never Return to Egypt

Resisting the temptation to return, geographically or psychologically, to the site of our bondage

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Provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative rabbinical seminary and university of Jewish studies. 

Several weeks ago, a book review in the New York Times caught my attention. Janet Maslin, reviewing The Known World by Edward Jones wrote: "Mr. Jones explores the unsettling, contradiction-prone world of a Virginia slaveholder who happens to be black." (NYT, August 14, 2003).

Maslin observed that such situations actually existed in the antebellum south. A black slaveholder-- quite a jarring concept for our rational minds! Nevertheless, such situational opposites are sadly not uncommon throughout history. Indeed, what actually caught my eye in this review was a vignette that the reviewer cited. Augustus, a former slave himself, confronts his son, Henry, who is a black slave-owner: "Augustus, who became free at the age of twenty-two, is aghast to find his son . . . owning slaves. 'Don't go back to Egypt after God done took you outa there,' Augustus warns."

One could hardly imagine a more powerful philosophical and historical statement; and it is this notion of not returning to Egypt that is rooted in this week's parashah, parashat Shoftim.

In Deuteronomy 17:14-20, we, the readers of the Torah, are advised of the stipulations placed on future kings of Israel. The king must be chosen by God, must be an Israelite, may not accumulate many horses, may not have many wives, cannot amass excess gold and silver, and must have a copy of this "Teaching" (i.e. the Torah) beside him.

Appended to the Torah's proscription against the acquisition of too many horses, a curious clause appears, "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' " (Deuteronomy 17:16). Yet surprisingly, God had not expressed this warning explicitly in prior sections of the Torah. This textual conundrum led the exacting medieval Spanish exegete, Abraham Ibn Ezra, to explain, "[the prohibition on returning to Egypt] is a commandment and it is not written." That is to say, this prohibition seems to be part of an oral tradition of the Israelites.

Even so, there are two verses which allude to this compelling topic: Exodus 14:13 and Deuteronomy 28:68. In Exodus 14:13, before the Israelites cross the Reed Sea (Yam Suf), Moses says to the people, "Don't be afraid. Stand still and see God's salvation that today, you will never see them [the Egyptians] ever again, ever." Moses' declaration may be taken more as an explicit promise than a warning; that once the Israelites have crossed the Reed Sea, they will never again have to turn back and face their Egyptian oppressors again. However, we note that this is Moses' promise to the people, not God's promulgated legislation.

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Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz

A Wexner Fellow ordained in 1999 by the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Matthew L. Berkowitz is the senior rabbinic fellow in JTS's KOLLOT: Voices of Learning program.