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.

Similarly, in Deuteronomy 28:68, we find an ominous sanction amid a plethora of threats. As one of the consequences of not observing the mitzvot, Moses warns: "the Lord will send you back to Egypt in galleys, by a route which I told you should not see again. There you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves but none will buy." Again, the source of this warning is Moses and the situation is vastly different from the verse in our parashah. Whereas parashat Shoftim seems to imply a categorical prohibition on returning to and settling in Egypt, parshat Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy: 28:68) implies that returning to Egypt will be a punishment for Israelite transgressions.

What then is the force of the legislation found in parashat Shoftim? How has it been understood in the past and how are we to understand it today? Essentially, there are two exegetical approaches to the prohibition against returning to Egypt--geographical and behavioral. Although it is the latter that has the greater and more substantive application for us as moderns, I want to explore the former as well through the eyes of Rambam (12th century, also known as Maimonides).

Despite the tenuous roots of the Torah's prohibition, Maimonides is quite stringent in his interpretation of the verse in our parashah. Writing in the Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Melakhim [Review of the Torah, Laws of Kings], Chapter 5, Laws 7-12, Maimonides states: "it is permitted to dwell anywhere in the world, except for the Land of Egypt. . . it is forbidden to settle there." Rambam cites the three scriptural verses explored earlier and then goes out of his way to single out one locale in particular, Alexandria, to which this prohibition applies.

Why single out one city in Egypt? Maimonides used such specific language because Jews of his time would have observed that Alexandria was a thriving center of the Jewish world, as it had been for centuries, and would have therefore concluded that Alexandria warranted an exception to the prohibition.

Dr. Raymond Scheindlin, a distinguished professor of medieval literature at JTS [The Jewish Theological Seminary], notes that the third century BCE witnessed the rapid growth of the Jewish community of Egypt, especially in the then-recently-founded city of Alexandria, which soon became a major center of Jewish life. Scheindlin explains that this community was "so Hellenized that they were regarded legally as Hellenes, that is, as belonging to the same social class as the Greek rulers, rather than to the social class of the subject Egyptian population. It was for the use of these Hellenized Egyptian Jews that the Torah was translated into Greek in this period" (Scheindlin, A Short History of the Jewish People, p. 35).

Given the prosperity of this diaspora community from the third century BCE through Maimonides' time (and even up to the early 20th century), it is not surprising that Maimonides felt compelled to single out Alexandria. It would follow then that Maimonides limited himself to a strict geographical understanding of the prohibition against living in Egypt.

Ramban (also known as Nahmanides, 1194-1270, roughly a contemporary of Maimonides), leads us down a different exegetical path by focusing on the behavioral aspect of the commandment. He writes: "the reason for this mitzvah [of not settling in Egypt] was because the Egyptians and Canaanites were unsavory and sinners against God." Ramban then quotes Leviticus 18:3 which warns the Israelites against imitating the practices of the Egyptians and Canaanites.

He continues, "for God wanted to make sure that they would not learn from their [the Egyptians'] ways . . . and so God warned them [the Israelites] not to return to their [the Egyptians'] land -- to Egypt." For Ramban, the larger more consequential issue in the prohibition against living in the Land of Egypt is behavioral. The Torah's concern is that Israel abide by its own particular way of life. God's Revelation on Sinai and Moses' legislation gave the Israelites a distinct way of life that leads to holy (and wholly) different possibilities from the ones these former slaves knew in Egypt. The Torah intimately understands the seduction of return and so legislates against it.

The notion of opposing a return to Egypt becomes all the more timely as we approach Rosh Hodesh Elul, the new month of Elul. Elul, the month leading up to the Yamim Noraim (the Days of Awe) is a time we are given to think about and act on the principle of teshuvah, repentance, or literally, returning. The options before us are twofold-- as they were before the biblical Israelites-- returning to Egypt or returning to God. The former implies continued oppression and enslavement to materialism, ignorance and complacency; the latter implies hope, vision, and possibilities. Parashat Shoftim, in all of its wisdom, and the rabbis, in all of their wisdom, keenly understood the seduction of the old and the familiar--the challenge is to break with the attraction toward a brighter and more hopeful future.

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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.