5756 - #8

The Memory of Egypt

Nechama Leibowitz, [1] in quoting from Howard Fast's historical novel on the Maccabean revolt, My Glorious Brothers, introduces us to an aspect of Klal Yisrael's Egyptian experience that is often overlooked. As we study the Exodus, attempting to uncover the essential philosophical, theological and national elements that are contained within this most important Torah narrative, we often do not consider that - beyond the world of thought - we, the Jewish nation, actually, inherently, existentially, had this experience. More than ideas that we study and integrate - through the mind - into our lives, the slavery in Egypt and the Exodus from this land permeates our very being.

In Fast's fictional work, a Roman legate complains that the kind treatment of slaves by Jews, in fact the Jewish nation's negative attitude to slavery in general, threatens the very basis of Roman civilization. He questions Simon the Maccabee for rendering a lenient decision in regard to a runaway slave. Simon the Maccabee responds: "You asked me about freedom, Roman, and with us, that is somehow different than with others, for once we were slaves in Egypt...We were slaves in Egypt once, a long time ago, a long, long time ago in terms of the nokri [non-Jew], but with us the past lives; we don't destroy it. Then we were slaves and we laboured morning, noon and night under the lash of the overseer."[2] Our Egyptian experience of slavery did not just teach us the idea that slavery is, ultimately, incorrect. It forged this concept in our bones; we feel its abhorrence.

It may be precisely this message that the Torah is imparting to us with its constant reference to the slavery in Egypt and Yetziat Mitzrayim, the Exodus. Many mitzvot enforce their observance with the reminder that we were slaves in Egypt and/or with the fact that Hashem redeemed us. It is not a lesson that is being imparted but a reminder of our experience. Yet what does it mean that collective Israel over time experienced Egypt and the Exodus?

We often understand the lessons of ethics to exist outside of ourselves; their transmission is perceived to be uni-dimensional. The transmitter of the knowledge is deemed to convey it to the recipient as one gives another any object. True, we may be interested in how to transmit the lesson yet these questions of transmission are deemed to be matters simply of form, not content. The lesson or thought, though, is deemed to exist independently. The Torah's constant reference to Egypt and Yetziat Mitzrayim, though, instructs us differently.

Knowledge is not something that is simply given to another. The recipient does not only receive information but he or she must integrate the information into a personal world view. Thought is dependent upon axioms and information is always internalized and understood within the parameters of one's axioms. There is no area of knowledge to which this principle applies more than the realm of ethics.

Rabbi Yisrael Chait [3] presents a most interesting challenge that exemplifies this reality. Rabbi Chait argues that it is virtually impossible to teach humility to one whose axiomatic interest is egotistical honour. To this person, humility will only be deemed a value if it will lead to honour - which inherently is not humility. One may be able to teach this person to act humble if one can argue that humility in action will lead to honour. Yet the value of humility itself cannot be taught for this person will only evaluate this value through an axiomatic value of honour.[4] The only possible way for the value of humility to be accepted is if the axiom changes.

At Sinai, the Jewish nation was intended to receive the Torah - but how would it be ensured that the nation would be able to truly understand the Torah as Hashem intended. They can only perceive through their axioms of value - and these axioms cannot be taught. A lesson is ultimately heard, grasped and applied by a person - and we are all bound by our inherent, axiomatic perceptions and values. Thus, before the giving of the Torah, Hashem had to ensure that the Jewish nation had the correct axioms, would be able to hear the lessons of Torah. G-d had to ensure that the axiomatic value by which all other values would be evaluated, the axiomatic value that cannot be taught, would be correct for the acceptance of Torah. This was Egypt.

Did we all collectively experience the slavery in Egypt? The answer is, of course, not. The actual travail of slavery was experienced solely by our forefathers. Yet, the existential reality of that slavery is with us as much as it was with our forefathers. It was in these formulative years that the Jewish nation, individually and collectively, developed their axioms by which they would see the world - and even hear the Torah. It is to these axioms that the Torah continuously refers.

Ultimately, this is what Simon the Maccabee was telling the Roman legate. It was not simply that our forefathers were slaves or even that we were slaves. Our axioms of values were developed in that slavery of Egypt and, even today, they permeate our existence and colour our vision of the world.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail




[1] Studies in Shemot, Part 1, Parshat Shemot, Introduction.

[2] See further Henry Abramson, The Jew in History, NISHMA Journal VIII where the author discusses the unique and seemingly paradoxical nature of the Jew's relationship with history.

[3] Rosh Yeshiva, Yeshivat Bnei Torah of Far Rockaway.

[4] See, further, Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 6:3 which discusses the punishment of not being able to do teshuva, repentance. This idea may be further developed applying this context.

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