The Jewish narrative is forever entangled with ancient Egypt. That entanglement continues to challenge us today.
An Organic Entanglement
The Talmudic Sages expand the Passover narrative from a historical encounter to an organic mother-child relationship.
The Midrash compares God’s going to “take for Himself a nation from the very bowels of another nation” (Deut. 4:34) to extracting “a fetus from the womb of a cow”.
The image of the Pascal blood on the thresholds and of the people emerging from the breaking waters of the sea, is a powerful image of birthing. Egypt is portrayed not as the familiar historical oppressor but as a woman in the midst of a violent birth. Egypt is the womb in which the Israelites gestated. The portrait which the Sages paint is not one of a mere historical encounter, but rather, of an intimate organic connection.
Under the best of circumstances severing the bond between the infant and the mother is a complicated business. This is even more the case when the mother is abusive and cruel – where love and loathing are intermingled as were the light and the darkness of creation.
How do we emerge?
So, how do we understand and emerge from the womb of Egypt – from what could be called, “The Egyptian Entanglement?”
The key lies in how the following verse is interpreted.
[…]and the children of Israel went out with a high hand. (Ex. 14:8)
Onkelos deviates from the straightforward meaning of the Torah text by translating “a high hand”, be yad ramah, as “heads held high.”
The key to understanding the differing connotations of “a high hand” as opposed to “heads held high” is in the Targum Yonatan on the same verse. He translates, “heads held high” as “With a raised hand overcoming the Egyptians.”
Rabbi Mordechai Yosef of Ishbitz (1800 – 1851) explains that, in contradistinction to the raised hand, which is set against the Egyptians, the head held high indicates a different type of freedom: Heads held high signify a freedom that is “not against others with pride and a feeling of superiority rather… as free people without fear of any man”. (Mei Hashiloah, Beshalah)
I would like to unpack this teaching of the Mei Hashiloah.
There is a danger that the Israelites, because of the trauma of slavery, would not properly separate from the abusive environment in which they developed. It is very tempting to adopt a stance of victimhood and self-righteousness. Together, these characteristics seem to grant the moral high ground. However, adopting a posture of victimhood and allowing it to shape one’s personality and the lens through which one views the world can be very destructive. Too often, the victim turns into the victimizer. The abused becomes the abuser. Undoubtedly, the Israelites suffered terrible injustices at the brutal hands of their Egyptian masters. However, to adopt the role as ‘victim’, when the post slavery era did not justify it, would in a sense perpetuate the slavery. Their “freedom” would be no freedom at all; it would be slavery in a different form. Their experience would be oriented back towards their oppressors – it would be a reaction to Egypt.
The Challenge Today
Rousseau famously wrote, “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains. Those who think themselves masters of others are indeed greater slaves than they.” Freedom for all people begins with an attitude of freedom. For the Israelites, freedom required a paradigm shift away from powerless victim to empowered servants of God joined together by a cosmic destiny.
The challenge our ancestors faced back then is analogous to the situation which we, especially those of us who live in Israel, encounter today. To what extent will we allow our Galut experience, especially recent Jewish history, our own “Egyptian Entanglement,” to orient us?
Are all of our enemies equivalent to the Nazis? Are we always the victims? Is the rule of Law “negotiable” as it was for our ancestors who suffered under anti-Jewish regimes from which they were justifiably alienated? Can we feel a sense of commonality with fellow citizens who do not belong to our religio-ethnic community?
Our freedom today depends upon understanding how we have been traumatized by recent Jewish history and consciously seeking a wholesome paradigm shift from helpless victim to empowered free people. That will determine how we answer these fateful questions. The abused child must overcome the daunting obstacles and become a mature loving adult. The Nation must progress from our very own “Egyptian Entanglement” to freedom.