Back to Egypt

The shock waves in Israeli society due to the controversy of “equality of burden” – work and army service as it relates to Haredim – have generated much commotion, excitement, trepidation, anger, and some very, very strange statements. Topping the list is this refrain, allegedly uttered by some prominent Roshei Yeshiva, that essentially says: “if any such evil decrees pass that threaten to undermine, weaken or even change the Haredi program of Talmud Torah, then we will have no choice but to return to Russia and Poland.”
In fact, such an assertion was first made at least 15 years ago by a leading Rosh Yeshiva, when similar proposals for Haredi service, work, reduced child allowances and curriculum reform were made back then. The sentiment is certainly understandable. In a community that feels that it has achieved the apex of spirituality – duplicating the grandeurs of Eastern European Jewry – undoubtedly a retreat from the current ideal is perceived as a dire threat to its future. Better, then, to return to the glory days of the shtetl where the Czar and other rulers allowed the Jews to dwell in peace and tranquility, each man under his vine and fig tree. The statement is thus almost Biblical in its audacity.
Actually, it is Biblical.
Several times during our sojourn in the wilderness, when the going got tough and sin diverted us from our cherished objective of settling the land of Israel, a variety of leaders, in their discontent with Moshe’s stewardship of the nation, exclaimed (sometimes implicitly) “Nitna rosh v’nashuva Mitzroima!” – “Let us appoint a leader and we will return to Egypt!” (Bamidbar 14:4). Even on the banks of the Red Sea, days after being liberated from the Egyptian house of bondage, there were voices crying that it is “far better that we serve Egypt than die in the wilderness” (Shemot 14:12). At least for the latter, the threat of imminent death was real, even if their faith was somewhat tenuous. The lure of Egypt, contrived and fictitious as it was, was ubiquitous.
Yet, for all the nostalgia for Egypt from group of malcontents– its foods, ambience, family life, beaches and resorts, all of which caused the horrors of slavery and persecution, and the murder of their male infants, to fade – no one ever actually attempted to return to Egypt. Those disenchanted after the sin of the spies decided to conquer the land of Israel without authorization, and failed – but there was never an actual movement to return to Egypt. It was a rhetorical device that packed an emotional wallop in its criticism of present trends but was never taken seriously by anyone. If so, why was it said? Why would something so preposterous resonate with anyone to the extent that the Torah would record it?
Surely, no one takes seriously “threats” of returning to Poland, Russia, Germany and elsewhere. Besides the facts that those countries also have mandatory conscription (do Jews forget the Cantonist decrees?!) as well as little interest in subsidizing Torah study as does the State of Israel, the gruesome memories are still raw. Those are countries that are drenched in Jewish blood, in which six million Jews were murdered just seven decades ago, and from which several million Jews fled in the half-century before that – primarily to the United States but also to South Africa, South America, England, Australia, and yes, the land of Israel. Eastern Europe became a graveyard for Jews, certainly physically but also, it needs to be said, spiritually as well.
For all its glories, and the majesty of the Yeshiva movement in Lithuania that inspires us until today, it was relatively small in numbers. The largest of the yeshivot barely numbered in the low hundreds of students at the peak of their existence, and most were far smaller than that. Most Jews were unlearned, and many completely dropped out of the world of Torah observance (far more in percentage than what we witness today with our so-called “youth at risk”), as evidenced by the substantial numbers of Jews that abandoned even their nominal observance the moment they arrived on American shores. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were swept away from Torah by the Enlightenment, Communism, Socialism, and secular Zionism. The nostalgia has no basis in fact, like our memories in later years of the home runs that we never slugged as young men but thought we did.
Worse, one reason those movements took root in the 19th and early 20th centuries was the grinding poverty of the “Haredi” world of that time that attempted to glamorize privation and suffering but found that they weren’t quite as marketable as they hoped. Rather than provide a kosher means to escape ghetto life and poverty, many leaders closed the gates and erected even more interior walls, with the result that many Jews just upped and left – Torah, not just Europe. Are they making the same mistake again today? Embracing policies that consistently lead to poverty and the need for public support – from a public that is less and less willing to provide – is not a recipe for long-term success. Hence, the warning that if pushed, they will leave and take their indigence with them to other shores.
The idle threat intoned in the wilderness to return to Egypt was not serious – except for this: it reflected a desire to escape their destiny as Jews and to somehow carve out a different destiny for themselves. “Going back to Egypt” meant severing one’s spiritual and emotional ties to the rest of the people of Israel, as if to say: “the rest of you are on your own. We want nothing to do with you, neither your honey nor your sting. We are a nation unto ourselves. Good luck.”
Is that the message that is being sent today as well? I would hope not, both because it won’t succeed and especially because it is such a poor reflection on Torah Jewry.
Count me among those who believe that threats of incarceration for Haredi resisters are wrong, misplaced, counterproductive and will not succeed. But those who in their anguish about the need to change certain aspects of Haredi life in order to be a part of the nation in all respects do a disservice to their constituents and the Torah itself when they make idle threats that sound – and are – bizarre and outlandish, and not to be taken seriously.
Thus, we are taught: “Wise men: be careful with your words, lest you become liable for exile and you are exiled to the place of evil waters, and your disciples who follow you will drink those waters and die, and the name of Heaven will be desecrated” (Avot 1:11).

3 responses to “Back to Egypt

  1. Sue Hausdorff

    Right on the mark…..Mom

  2. One of the differences between Ashkenazic Jews and Sephardic Jews is that Sephardic Jews never (or almost never) talk about how great it was to live in: Iran, Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq, or Spain.

    In contrast, it is not unusual for Ashkenazic Jews to talk about how great it was to live in places like: Germany, Russia, Lithuania, Poland or Hungary.

  3. Instead of returning to Russia and Poland, I humbly suggest the Hesder Yeshivah system, where young Israeli men spend half their time studying Torah, and half their time serving in the IDF.