Taking Egypt Out of the People

What follows is a text version of my sermon from Shabbat services on 2/1/20 – Shavuah Tov!

     My mother in law and father in law to this day take great pride from the fact that they both hail from the most important city in the world, namely Brooklyn NY.  They grew up in Brooklyn’s Orthodox community in the 40s and 50s, went to school there, played hand ball on the streets, met there, and fell in love there.  In many ways those Brooklyn experiences continue to define their lives, all these years later, despite the fact that neither of them have lived in Brooklyn now for 60 some years.  But in any conversation with them you quickly discover their origins, and if you had any doubts, when my mother in law Elka begins to speak those are quickly dispelled, as she still retains her Brooklyn accent.

     Becky assures me that accent has faded over time, but when her mother says coffee – cawfee – or hotdog – hotdawg – you know immediately where she is from.  As the old saying goes, you can take the girl (or guy) out of Brooklyn, but not the … Brooklyn out of the girl.  

     You may fairly ask what a Brooklyn accent -my mother in law’s, or anyone else’s – has to do with this morning’s Torah portion, called Bo, and the truth is a Brooklyn accent has nothing at all to do with our Torah reading.  But an Egyptian accent has quite a bit to do with it.  It is in this morning’s portion that the Israelites will finally leave Egypt – at least physically – and begin to make their way from slavery to freedom.  The Torah is quite precise about the amount of time the Israelites spent in Egypt:  ומושב בני ישראל אשר ישבו במצריים שלושים שנה וארבע מאות שנה – the length of time that the Israelites lived in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years.

     That is a long time by any measure.  There are some of you in the room this morning who might remember the 1986 hit by the band the Bangles, called ‘Walk Like an Egyptian.’  After more than four hundred years in Egypt the Israelites must have not only walked like Egyptians, but dressed like them, adopted many of their social customs, and almost certainly, talked like them.  One would have to imagine that when Israel left Egypt all of the Israelites spoke in Egyptian accents.  In fact there is a fairly extensive midrashic tradition about how assimilated the Israelites became in Egypt, how much, over time, they looked and spoke like Egyptians, so much so that it might have been difficult to tell the difference between an Egyptian and an Israelite.  

     I want to shift gears with you for a moment, and think about a verse from the Torah that is not in this morning’s portion, but instead appears in the book of Deuteronomy, in the portion called Ki Teitzei, which we’ll be reading in the middle of the summer, many weeks from now.  It is one of the Bible’s most puzzling verses, it comes up in a series of disparate laws that don’t seem to have all that much to do one with the other.  Here is that strange verse:  לא תתעב מצרי כי גר היית בארצו – you will not abhor an Egyptian, because you were a stranger in his land.

     Commentators have long wondered why Moses would give this command to the Israelites.  After all, if any place in the Torah deserves to be hated it is Egypt, and if any people in the Torah deserve to be hated it would be the Egyptians.  They enslaved the Israelites.  They oppressed them, they treated them harshly, with forced labor, making their lives miserable.  And ultimately they plotted to murder Israelite children that were born, essentially planning to do this to completely destroy the Jewish people.  And yet Moses says – לא תתעב מצרי – do not abhor the Egyptian.

     Traditional commentators have long tried to solve this riddle by referring to the second half of the verse – כי גר היית בארצו – because you were a stranger in his – in the Egyptian’s – land.  For example Rashi, the great medieval commentator, writes that Egypt provided, for a time, a place of refuge for Israel, and even if it ultimately turned bad, that moment of refuge should be acknowledged and remembered, and therefore Egypt as a place and the Egyptians as a people should not be hated.

     But I would like to suggest a different explanation this morning.  And it has to do with what Moses’ task was in terms of the Israelites.  If I were to ask you what his task was, I think most of you would say that it was to get the Israelites out of Egypt.  In fact even God says that to Moses, in Exodus 3, when Moses sees the Burning Bush, God says this:  ‘I will send you to Pharaoh – והוצא את עמי בני ישראל – and YOU shall free my people, the Israelites, from Egypt.’   It is hard to argue with God, and if you said Moses’ task was to get the Israelites out of Egypt, I would say you are right – but only partially right.  Because Moses had another task, which was to get Egypt out of the Israelites.  

     And I think that is what that verse in Deuteronomy, ‘do not abhor an Egyptian,’ is all about.  Because when you hate something you hold on to it and you have trouble letting it go.  You obsess about it, you think about it daily, you can’t get it out of your mind.  The Israelites had been in Egypt for so long  – as we said a few moments ago, for more than 400 years.  For most of that time they were slaves to the Egyptians.  And you have to think that as they became more and more Egyptian – again in their dress, their language, their culture – that the hate they felt for their masters grew deeper and stronger.  That is the second half of the verse!  Do not hate the Egyptian – because you were a stranger in his land!  You lived there for so long, for hundreds of years, and I Moses know that physically getting you out of Egypt will not get the experience of Egypt out of you.

     The truth is we all carry a little bit of Egypt around inside of us.  That thing that can eat away at us.  That person we don’t like that we spend way too much time thinking about.  That job we didn’t get, or the goal we didn’t reach, or the relationship that didn’t work out.  It seems to me one of the most important skills in life is identifying those little pieces of Egypt we carry around, and then once we find them, figuring out how to let them go.

     And by the way I say ‘let them go’ intentionally.  I don’t mean by that forgetting those difficult experiences.  In fact it is important to remember them, in the hopes that we can learn and grow and be better.  After all, we sit down at the seder table every year and remember the Exodus!  But you can remember something, and not have to carry it around as a burden all the time.  Moses didn’t say to the Israelites תשכח את מצריים – forget Egypt!  Erase it from your memory!  Instead, the command was ‘don’t hate.’  Don’t carry that feeling of hate with you every single day.  Don’t let that kind of feeling define your character, or your life.  Because if you can’t figure out a way to let it go, it will.

     That is one of the reasons the Exodus story is so powerful –  it is a story of a particular time and a particular people, but it is also, like all great stories, the story of all time and all people.  We all know what it means to be trapped in Egypt.  And we all know what it feels like to yearn for freedom.  

     May God grant us all the wisdom to learn from the past, but not to live in it.  May God grant us the strength to let go when we need to let go, to walk free and unburdened into the future, in the journey of our own lives, with family, friends, faith as our constant guides and companions.

Author: Steve Schwartz

Husband, father of three, Deadhead, and rabbi. I am now in my 22nd year of serving a large congregation in the Baltimore area.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s