Wandering and Permanence and God

January 11th: The Book of Exodus
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

As we closed our study of Genesis, we considered God’s words to Jacob: “I am God, the God of your father. Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation. I Myself will also bring you back…” (Genesis 46.3-4) Though God knew of the slavery that waited for the Israelites in Egypt—and while Israel with his prophetic abilities probably knew about it as well, God’s instructions say that the move from Canaan to Egypt is a good plan—for now. Later, it will be time to leave Egypt and return to Canaan, but now Egypt is the place to be.

In our long history of wandering, there have been innumerable places that have been good. It was good in ancient Egypt for a long time. It was good under the Greeks for a long time. It was good under the Romans for several periods of their rule. It was good in Babylonia in many periods (of our 2500 year sojourn there). There was a kind of Golden Age of Jewish life in the Rhineland (Speyer, Mainz, and Worms) for a few centuries. The times were so good in Andalusia (Muslim Spain) that we call that period the Jewish Golden Age of Spain. Though anti-Semitism reared its ugly head from time to time, Jewish culture, religious scholarship, prosperity, and involvement in the general community thrived in many places and for many years. One can even point to the good years in places like Germany and Austria of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. As for England, things have been good there for several centuries—though Jews were banned for some 350 years, from 1290 to 1657.

Even when much of the European climate was hostile, the anti-Semitism was sporadic. When one king or bishop sanctioned oppression, another one 100 or 200 miles away would encourage Jewish refugees to come to his region, and things would be good there.

As the late historian Ellis Rivkin used to explain, there is no tenet in Christianity or Islam that demands the destruction or even conversion of the Jews. Otherwise, the whole of Christendom or of Islamdom would have united in such a campaign. What we have, rather, are certain texts in both religions that can be used for anti-Semitism in economic or political crises. Dr. Rivkin could go through a list of anti-Semitic incidents in history and, for every single one, show an economic or political problem in which anti-Semitism was used by despots to relieve or divert the crisis.

As we begin Exodus, we reflect on how our good life in Egypt turned bad: “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.’ So the Egyptians set taskmasters over the Israelites to oppress them with forced labor; and they built garrison cities for Pharaoh; Pithom and Rameses.” (Exodus 1.8-11)

What could account for such a change of attitude? Contrast it to the initial invitation from a different Pharaoh: “Take your father and your households and come to me; I will give you the best of the land of Egypt and you shall live off the fat of the land…never mind your belongings, for the best of all the land of Egypt shall be yours” (Genesis 45.17-20)

An important thing to remember about history is that we Jews were/are not the only wanderers. Permanence in the human experience is at best temporary. Who knows where the “original Egyptians” originated or how homogenous were the Egyptians who built the Pyramids. Egyptologists work on putting the story together, but there seem to be a variety of ethnic, religious, and power groups that vied for influence during the thousands of years of “the Egyptians.” Around 1640 BCE, the then current rulers of Egypt were displaced by a well-organized and militarily better equipped people from Anatolia known as the Hyksos. They swept into the Nile delta and took over for over 100 years. Then, they were driven out by the “native Egyptians” around 1532 BCE who installed their own new king/Pharaoh. Some historians believe that it was a Hyksos Pharaoh who welcomed Joseph and his family—and a post-Hyksos new Pharaoh who expelled the “foreigners” and enslaved our ancestors.

One could compare the situation to the Edict of Expulsion from Spain in 1492 when the Jews were expelled as part of the Reconquista, a centuries’ old effort to rid the Iberian Peninsula of the Muslims who had conquered it some six centuries before.

The point is that our wanderings from place to place—and the good times and bad times we have faced—have been part of the context of human impermanence. Rulers change. Borders and countries change. Weather and topography change. And, we humans scurry around trying to find good places.

 Our Tradition draws two lessons from this dynamic in which we have lived and in which we continue to live today.
(1)   Appreciate the blessings we have and the resilience of our bodies, our wits, our families, and our cultures. Like Jacob who became a Patriarch in a struggle, we find our best humanity in the striving of life and in the search for meaning.

(2)   Realize that the only permanence lies with God. We need to learn to live in relationship with the Eternal One Who is the context for all existence. Like every one of our forebears, we are accompanied along the paths of life by God.