Egypt Within Us

We see an unusual formulation in the text of our parsha  ( Torah portion) that is almost universally translated in a fashion that is clearly different  than what the Hebrew actually says.

It begins when the Egyptians set out to recapture the people of Israel”

Egypt ( Mitzrayim) chased after them and overtook them encamped by the sea every horse of Pharaoh’s chariots, his horsemen, and his force beside Pi hahiroth, in front of Ba’al Zephon ( Exodus 14:9)

It ends in the same chapter:

On that day the Lord saved Israel from the hand of Egypt ( Mitzrayim), and Israel saw Egypt ( Mitzrayim),  dying on the seashore.31. And Israel saw the great hand, which the Lord had used upon Egypt ( Mitzrayim), and the people feared the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and in Moses, His servant.( ibid:30)

Most translations take the word Mitzrayim which means Egypt and translate it as” the Egyptians”. They are the ones who chased the people of Israel in the desert and they are the ones that lay dying on the seashore. Yet it is not the Egyptians alone who were laying on the seashore. It truly was Egypt.

This helps explain a difficulty with the first word in the Parsha.

We read:

It came to pass ( VaYehi ) when Pharaoh let the people go, that God did not lead them [by] way of the land of the Philistines for it was near, because God said, Lest the people reconsider when they see war and return to Egypt (Exodus 13:17)

The sages point out that the words ” VaYehi -And it came to pass” always appear during times of great danger and difficulty. We see that concept  in the first words in the Book of Esther:

“Now it came to pass( VaYehi) in the days of Ahashverush..” (Esther1;1)

What could be sad or tragic about the exodus from Egypt?

To answer this ,Reb Yechiel Michell of Zlotchov focuses on another verse:

“And HaShem said unto Moses: ‘Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh; for by a strong hand shall he let them go, and by a strong hand shall he drive them out of his land.’ (Exodus 6:1).

The text seems to imply that Pharaoh would have to chase them out of their bondage in Egypt . Reb Yehiel explained that Israel ‘s exiles will always be self-inflicted. If they lose hope and vision then exile is always quick to follow . Only when  the Jewish people find the strength to become themselves would they have the strength to deny the nations of the world the power to subjugate them.

This then was the sadness that is implied in the word “ VaYehi It came to pass .

The Torah doesn’t say that HaShem took them out , or even that the Children of Israel left Egypt. It was Pharaoh who let them out or chased them out. They were still under the psychological and spiritual control of Egypt They still did not have the strength to seize their prophetic destiny in their own hands.

The people of Israel first had to courageously walk into the sea and cause the sea to split by virtue of their faith. It is then that G-d ensured that the spiritual and psychological tyranny of Egypt would die along with the Egyptian taskmasters on the shores of the sea.

Our sages tell us in the Mishnah (Pesachim), “Bechol dor vador chayav adam lirot et atzmo keilu hu yatza miMitzraim” – “In every generation one is required to view oneself as if one personally left Egypt.” Maimonides (the Rambam) has a different version of the thought and writes, “…keilu hu atah yatza miMitzraim” – “…as if he is at this moment leaving Egypt.” In Jewish thinking “time” is not linear, but cyclical. We do not only remember the Exodus from Egypt, we relive the idea of being liberated from our own limiting and confining Egypt in our very own individual lives. The Hebrew word for shackles or for things that bind and constrain us is meitzarim, which is the source of the Hebrew name for Egypt – Mitzrayim. We relive breaking those bonds, or meitsarim, in our individual or national life experience.

That is the battle we in Israel are still fighting. We are not only fighting the hordes of terrorism but also the specter of Egypt within us .The specter that makes us bow to the whims of the nations. When that hold will truly be broken then the sea of uncertainty will split and we will walk into the destiny that is ours.

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