Egypt the Bogeyman – Ekev 5776

The entire Book of Deuteronomy is a series of speeches by Moses to the Israelites on the Eastern banks of the Jordan River.  Moses knows he is going to die, and that he will not be able to lead them into the Promised Land.  This is his final opportunity to set his people on a course that will ensure their survival for generations to come.  Moses uses every trick at his disposal to direct the children of Israel to the  path of God and Torah.

In Parashat Ekev, he goes back and forth in his language, alternately praising and then criticizing the Israelites.  ‘God desired you, and chose you amongst all the nations to give you the Promised Land.  God will make you prosper.  The nations of the world will bless themselves by you.’

And then he tells them, ‘don’t think that you are getting all of this because you are so great.  In fact, you have been a pain in the neck for forty years.  You have been ungrateful and have repeatedly lost faith.’

Moses’ desperation jumps out of the text.  He is pulling out all the stops because he knows that the Israelites are going to have to continue on without him.  He is profoundly aware that his message is going to have to carry across the generations.

One of the rhetorical tools that Moses utilizes in this parashah is a contrasting of the anticipated life in Israel to the remembered life in Egypt.  The Israelites can look forward to a place which is fundamentally different from everything they have known, he emphasizes repeatedly.

This is ironic.  Keep in mind that whenever the Israelites complained during their forty years of wandering in the wilderness, they asked to go back to Egypt, where there was plenty of food and water.  Now, Moses is telling them that a return to Egypt, both spiritually and physically, is the last thing thing they should hope for.

For his first comparison, Moses states “[The Lord] will not bring upon you any of the dreadful diseases of Egypt, about which you know, but will inflict them upon all your enemies.”  (7:15)

What are these dreadful Egyptian maladies?  It could be a reference to some of the plagues that God sent against the Egyptians, and which spared the Israelites.

Alternatively, there were certain illnesses in the ancient world that were especially associated with Egypt, such as elephantiases, ophthalmia, and dysentery.  The Roman historian Pliny referred to Egypt as the mother of skin diseases and referred to elephantiasis as “the particular Egyptian disease.” (Tigay, JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy, p. 89)

In any event, the implication is that Israel will be a healthy place to live.

Next, Moses offers a pep talk to the Israelites, telling them that they do not need to be afraid of the larger, more powerful nations that they are coming up against.  All they have to do is remember what God did to Pharaoh and the Egyptians when they came out of slavery.  There were wondrous acts, plagues, miracles, and splitting seas.  The Israelites just need to remember that God is amongst them, fighting for them.  (7:18)

Once again, Moses invokes the Israelites’ memory of leaving Egypt to reassure them that they will be able to overcome the larger numbers and more powerful armies of the Canaanite nations that they are about to face.  If God could defeat the Egyptian forces and lead the Israelites out of slavery, then no threat is impossible as long as the Israelites keep faith.

The third reference to Egypt is one that has appeared many times in the Torah.  “You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”  (10:19)

It is not just the land of Egypt that they have left behind.  The Israelites have also left behind the experience of being strangers.  It is an experience that any normal person would probably want to forget.

But Moses does not want them to forget it.  Here, as in numerous places in the Torah, we are instructed to remember the feelings of strangeness – of being dislocated and foreign.  That memory is supposed to lead to compassion.

The Israelites are to look around them, and specifically notice the strangers among them.  Then they are to care for them, to show compassion, fairness, and justice.

The implication, of course, is that the Egyptians did not show them any compassion, fairness, and justice.  Moses’ contrast here is a moral one.  Egyptian society was bigoted, selfish, and elitist.  They must learn from that bad experience and create a morally worthy society.

Moses’ final contrast with Egypt has to do with water and agriculture.

For the land that you are about to enter and possess is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come. There the grain you sowed had to be watered by your own labors, like a vegetable garden; but the land you are about to cross into and possess, a land of hills and valleys, soaks up its water from the rains of heaven. It is a land which the Lord your God looks after, on which the Lord your God always keeps His eye, from year’s beginning to year’s end.  (11:10-12)

Is this a good thing?  Not clear.  Let’s see if we can understand this.  Egypt does not receive much rain.  Instead, life there is dependent on the annual flooding of the Nile River.  In order to farm, human beings must physically transport water from the river to their fields and gardens.  They did this through the construction of canals and reservoirs, so that they would be able to continue to water the fields after the Nile receded.  But the regular flooding of the Nile was a given.  It was a sure thing that could be relied upon.

In the Promised Land, however, such a system would not work.  It is a land of mountains, hills, and valleys, rather than flat fields.  People’s livelihood depends on receiving rain in the proper time.  And for that, they are dependent on God.  As Rashi describes, this is so that God will be able “to see what it needs, and to keep issuing decrees with regard to it – sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse.”

So which is better?

One might think that Egypt is better.  After all, there is less uncertainty.  The flooding of the Nile can be counted upon, while rain is more fickle, as we can certainly attest here in California.

In the theology of Deuteronomy, as long as the people stick to the covenant – living by the Torah and constructing a society built on kindness and compassion towards one another and faith in God – nothing will stop them.  They will be healthy.  They will not have to fear other nations.  They will have a prosperous land.

And when the Israelites have all of that, there is no question about whether it is better to live in Egypt or Israel.  Moses’ overall message is that a life with God’s blessing in the land of Israel is better than any lingering rosy memories of Egypt.

Moses rhetorically paints Egypt as the mythic bad place that we came from and to which we never want to return.  It is a place of disease, brutal military might, inhospitability to foreigners, and ironically, reliable water sources.  It is kind of a bogeyman.  Ironically, it was, at the time, also the most prosperous and powerful Empire in the world.

But better than that is the Land of Israel, which for the Jewish people is a place of tremendous potential for living in covenantal harmony with God.  But only if Israel does its part.

We are surrounded by potential.  We have access to unprecedented wealth, science, medicine, and physical delights that no previous generation enjoyed.  Will this bounty be a blessing for us?  Moses’ message still rings true.  By following the path of Torah, compassion for those around us, and faith in God, the future is wide open.

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