Call it “the Exodus in reverse.”
In growing numbers Israeli tour groups are flocking to Cairo, Luxor and Aswan to tour the sites of Egypt, and I recently led the first biblically themed kosher tour there. The exposure to Egypt, ancient and modern, is a mind-bending experience.
It hits you the moment you get on the highway from Cairo International Airport. Before you are two huge signs. To the right “Nasser City,” named for the dictator who sought Israel’s destruction in 1956 and 1967, and to the left, “6th of October City,” erected in commemoration of the surprise attack against Israel on Yom Kippur, 1973. I can vividly recall as a youngster sitting next to my father in shul on that Yom Kippur morning when the rabbi rose and announced, “Israel has been attacked; we don’t know where and we don’t know by whom.”
But blink an eye and this is what you now see: A kippah-wearing Jew jogging alone in Luxor and in Aswan greeted with applause and cheers as the locals call out morning greetings of “Sabah al-khair!”; 35 Jews walking through the densely packed souk of central Cairo on a Friday morning as hawkers looking to peddle their wares approach, calling “Shalom U-vrachah!”; Jews making a minyan for evening prayers – in the lobby of the Cairo Ramses Hilton; local hotel kitchen staff checking their every move with our kashrut supervisor, eager to respect the laws of the Jews’ parallel to the Muslim dietary laws of halal.
In Egypt, for the first time in my life, I walked around a city where the vast majority of people were like me – devout practitioners of their religion. There was something liberating about not sticking out like a sore thumb in a secular liberal landscape.
To tour the sites of ancient Egypt is truly to walk in the footsteps of the Exodus. Here you read in hieroglyphs names like Miriam and Pinchas” (Pinchas, an Egyptian name? Who knew?), and brush your hand over mud bricks with straw that date to the time of the enslavement in Egypt.
Some of the discoveries are truly revealing. At the Seder table, we recall how God delivered Israel from Egypt “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” Most would be surprised to learn that this biblical phrase is actually Egyptian in origin: Egyptian inscriptions routinely describe the Pharaoh as “the mighty hand” and his acts as those of “the outstretched arm.”
When the Torah describes God in the same terms used by the Egyptians to exalt their pharaohs, we see at work the dynamics of cultural appropriation. During much of its history, ancient Israel was in Egypt’s shadow. For weak and oppressed peoples, one form of cultural and spiritual resistance is to appropriate the symbols of the oppressor and put them to competitive ideological purposes.
Or consider this: when you write a sentence in hieroglyphs there’s a special rule: if the sentence contains the name of a god, that god’s name must be the first word in the sentence, no matter what it does to the syntax of the rest of the sentence. Think of a verse like Exodus 3:11: “And Moses said to the Lord, ‘who am I that I should go before Pharaoh?’” In hieroglyphs, you’d have to write this, “Lord Moses said to the who am I that I should go before Pharaoh?” That makes reading this stuff incredibly difficult, but as a man of faith myself, the idea behind it resonated with me: put God first, and work your way around Him.
One of the participants excitedly showed me that we have the same phenomenon in the halachah. The Torah says that the High Priest should wear a diadem inscribed with the words “Holy to God” (kodesh le-Hashem). But according to the Talmud (Shabbat 63b), this must be written in two lines: in the top line, the tetragrammaton alone, and in the lower line “Holy to – .” And then it dawned on me: in sharing this “God-first” mentality, I have something significant in common with these idol-worshipping Jew-enslaving Egyptians of old that I don’t with many of the people I consider good friends today.
None of this would be happening now without the Abraham Accords, whose tailwinds have carried Egypt along as part of the moderate Suni axis and its rapprochement with the Jewish State. Egyptair, which for years refused to fly its planes into Tel Aviv, now does so with daily service. To be sure, this is not for love of Zion but for love of mammon. The Egyptians want Israeli business travelers to transit to Africa through Cairo. They want Jews to visit Egypt because it helps their economy. But not so long ago, such interests couldn’t overcome animosity and radical ideology.
These opportunities challenge us to look at them anew as they look at us anew as well. And, so, it’s a blessed time and a first step. Following the cadence of the Haggadah, we may say: this year is different than all other years. And even If we can now peacefully visit Egypt, but the Egyptians don’t yet sing Ha-Tikvah – dayenu.