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Weekly Message from Rabbi Panitz 

January 11, 2018

THE MOST SURPRISING PART OF THE STORY…

We all know the story, because it is a key part of our identity: Our ancestors were slaves in Egypt. God heard our cries and sent Moses to tell Pharaoh, “let my people go!” But Pharaoh resisted, so God sent the Plagues, and finally, when the plagues reached Pharaoh’s own house, he relented. That’s our story, and we have the matzah to prove it!

Based on this story, what do you think would be the Bible’s attitude towards Egyptians? It would be unsurprising if the Bible retained a negative attitude… but this is the most surprising part of the Biblical response to slavery: it commands us not to abhor an Egyptian, because we were aliens in that land. (Deuteronomy 23:8)

Why does the Bible command us not to abhor an Egyptian? Is it because the Egyptian people were not to blame for the dictatorial actions of the Pharaoh? It is commonplace to say that we are not at war with an enemy people, but only with its government, and that when the wicked regime will be replaced, peace will ensue. That is a hopeful approach, and sometimes it helps to shape reality.

But sometimes it is simply naïve. The German people, for example, voted Hitler into power. Perhaps they did not foresee in 1933 that he was going to take them to a ruinous war, but they continued to support him, so long as Germany was winning.

I believe that the Bible is not telling us that the common Egyptian peasant was free of anti-Israelite prejudice, and therefore, we ought not abhor him. On the contrary, in Genesis 46:34, narrating the beginning of the Israelite sojourn in Egypt, the Bible suggests that already then, the Israelites were headed towards unpopularity. Joseph has his brothers explain to Pharaoh that they are cattlemen, so that Pharaoh will settle them in the land of Goshen, away from the Egyptians, since cattle-herding is abhorrent to the Egyptians. (That same word, “abhor”, again!)

Perhaps there is a sort of caste-distaste here. Or perhaps it is a religiously-inspired hatred. That exact problem arose in an Egyptian-Jewish community, centuries later, in the Persian period. There was a colony of Jewish mercenaries and their families in the Nile island town of Elephantine, near the Great Cataract of the river marking the southern border of the Persian empire, 2500 years ago. The Persians were tolerant of the Jews, and some of our ancestors found employ as border guards. But their Egyptian neighbors resented them. The Egyptians worshiped a ram-god, Khnum, and they were offended by the Jewish practice of offering sheep up as sacrifices on the altar of their Temple. (Yes, the Jews of Elephantine had their own Temple, much to the consternation of the authorities of the “official” Temple in Jerusalem— but that is the subject fit for another column.) Eventually, the Egyptians bribed the Persian governor to turn a blind eye, and they massacred the entire
Jewish community.

Back to the Bible, and from there, to our own world: If the Bible is not telling us that relations with the average Egyptian were good, then why is it commanding us not to abhor an Egyptian? Precisely because we had experienced the worst, when we were aliens. So, in the society that we were charged with creating, the majority would treat aliens well. Our mandate was to revolutionize inter-personal behavior, to create societies in which the Universal Parenthood of the One God would result in our treating our fellow humans, at last, as brothers and sisters. The great sage, Hillel, put it simply: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.”

This is a lesson for today, no less than the Bronze Age, and for America, no less than the storied lands of the Bible.

Shabbat shalom

Rabbi Michael Panitz

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