The Prohibition of Returning to Egypt

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion



The Prohibition of Returning to Egypt

By Rav Michael Hattin





Last week, we read of Israel's triumphant march from Egypt.  Their former taskmasters looked on in disbelief, now bent over and broken by the final hammer blow of the slaying of the first born, as Israel seemingly took leave of them forever and journeyed forwards to the land of Canaan.  Unexpectedly, though, God redirected their buoyant steps away from their natural route along the Mediterranean coastline, the so-called "Way of the Land of the Philistines," to instead enter the foreboding wilderness beyond Yam Suf.  There, He bid Israel to encamp along the shores of the sea, and with relief they did so, only too happy to break from their ceaseless march and to serenely contemplate their first true taste of freedom. 


But that moment was short-lived, as Pharaoh's charioteers, thirsting for vengeance, unexpectedly appeared on the horizon.  The people of Israel were instantly thrown into a panic, many of them now fervently wishing that they had never left the cruel crucible of Egyptian bondage at all.  Others, few in number, spoke of fighting, of dying as proud, liberated men, but most were bluntly petrified by paralysis, intellectually aware of the dawning danger but emotionally unable to take any initiative to secure their own survival.


Overwhelmed, the people cried out to God while focusing their intense distress on hapless Moshe:


They said to Moshe: 'were there no graves in Egypt that you took us out to perish in the wilderness?  What have you done to us to take us out of Egypt?  Did we not say to you while we were yet in Egypt: 'Let us alone to serve the Egyptians, for serving them is better than perishing in the wilderness'?" (14:11-12).


Though himself unsure of God's intentions, Moshe responded with confidence and courage:


Moshe said to the people: 'Do not be afraid!  Be steadfast and you will see the salvation of God that He will do for you this day, for though you see Egypt today, you will never see them again.  God will wage war for you, while you be silent!' (14:13-14).


As readers of the Torah, we of course already know the outcome of the episode.  The sea miraculously parted, Israel descended into its depths, while the ensuing Egyptian pursuit was forcefully and violently checked by the cascading waters.  Triumphant, the people of Israel broke forth in song, praising God's matchless prowess and now embracing Moshe as their rightful leader.





Significantly, while the text of the passage appears to be phrased as straightforward narrative, an early tradition (Talmud Yerushalmi Sukka 5:1; Mekhilta Beshalach 2 with minor variations) detected in it an imperative:


Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught: There are three places in Scripture where the people of Israel are enjoined not to return to the land of Egypt.  Here, the verse states:  'for though you see Egypt today, you will never see them again'.  Another verse states: '…God has said to you that you shall not return by this way again' (Devarim 17:16).  The third verse says that 'God will return you to Egypt in boats by the route concerning which I said that you shall not see it again…' (IBID, 28:68).


In other words, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai explains that the verse in our passage describing Moshe's faithful response to his panicked people is not simply his own words of promise and encouragement to them as they stand opposite the Egyptian host with their backs to the sea, Moshe's confident statement that they will prevail while their nemeses will be destroyed.  It is in fact a Divine command as well.  God is apparently indicating at this critical juncture, through his prophet's measured words, that it is forbidden for the people of Israel to ever return to Egypt!  It is not immediately clear why God chooses this particular venue to introduce a new commandment to the people of Israel, an instruction that seemingly could have been communicated equally well at a more calm and auspicious moment. 





It is important to be aware of the respective contexts of the other two references.  The passage from Devarim Chapter 17 concerns the command to appoint a king:


When you enter the land that God Lord gives you and you possess it and dwell in it, and you shall then say 'I will place a king upon myself, just like all of the nations that are around me'.  You shall surely place a king upon you, one whom God your Lord has chosen.  He shall be from among your brethren; you may not appoint upon yourselves a foreigner who is not your brother.  However, he shall not have too many horses, nor shall he return the people to Egypt in order to multiply horses, for GOD HAS SAID TO YOU THAT YOU SHALL NOT RETURN BY THIS WAY AGAIN.  He shall also not have too many wives, so that his heart not be led astray, nor shall he have too much silver and gold (17:13-17).


The next passage from Devarim Chapter 28 is the concluding verse of the so-called "Tokhecha" or "Rebuke," God's stern warning to the people as they stand poised to enter the land of Canaan, that abrogation of the Torah will bring disaster upon them.  After describing in alarming terms the series of tribulations that Israel will suffer in consequence of their infidelity, culminating in the conquest of their land and their exile from it, the passage concludes with a final unsettling image:


Your lives shall hang before you (as from a thread), and you shall be fearful night and day and will not have any conviction in your life.  In the morning you will say 'if only it were now evening!', and the evening you shall say 'if only it were now morning!', because of the fear that will fill your heart and because of what you shall see with your own eyes. GOD WILL RETURN YOU TO EGYPT IN BOATS, BY THE ROUTE CONCERNING WHICH I SAID THAT YOU SHALL NOT SEE IT AGAIN, and there you shall be sold to your enemies as slaves and maidservants, but there shall no buyers' (28:66-68).





In all three passages, then, the mention of a return to Egypt is understood to indicate an imperative NOT to return there.  In two of the passages, though, the reference to Egyptian return could have been just as plausibly understood as a pledge: 1) Moshe tells the people as they stand at the Sea of Reeds that they need not fear.  Their victory will be so overwhelming that they shall never again experience the threat of Egyptian oppression, for Egyptian power will be completely destroyed.  3) God indicates to a chastened Israel that if they abandon His laws they will in fact find themselves exiled and sold into servitude by way of the slave markets of Egypt.  Thus, they will suffer the terrible ignominy of reliving the oppression in Egypt from which He had liberated them. 


It is the middle passage, though, the one concerning the king, that provides the most convincing evidence that we are in fact dealing with a MITZVA command and not simply an assurance of future events: 2) God warns the king not to desire too many horses, for in so doing he will be tempted to return his subjects, the people of Israel, to Egypt.  This will be in order to secure a steady supply of the beasts from their world-renowned breeding centers, while such an act will be a blatant abrogation of God's DIRECTIVE    "THAT YOU SHALL NOT RETURN BY THIS WAY AGAIN".  Nevertheless, though the passage concerning the events at Yam Suf (the Sea of Reeds) is most easily understood as Moshe's hopeful and fervent conviction that Divine assistance will be forthcoming, Rabbi Shimon saw in it a negative command – "do not return to Egypt ever".  The classical sources thus understood that as the people stood at Yam Suf frozen with existential dread, the Egyptian horsemen just a heartbeat away, Moshe addressed them not only with soothing words of encouragement, but with a stern command as well, though admittedly the time and place for its introduction strike us as utterly surreal and inappropriate!





Significantly, the Rambam (12th century, Egypt!) has the following to say on the matter:


It is permitted to dwell anywhere in the world except for the land of Egypt, from the Mediterranean Sea and westwards for an area of 400 parasangs (a Persian distance equal to approximately 4.5 kilometers) square, opposite the land of Cush (Ethiopia) and opposite the (Sahara) desert.  The entire region is forbidden for settlement.  In three places the Torah warned us not to dwell there, as the verses state: "YOU SHALL NOT RETURN BY THIS WAY AGAIN" (Devarim 17:16), "YOU SHALL NOT SEE IT AGAIN" (Devarim 28:68), "THOUGH YOU SEE EGYPT TODAY, YOU WILL NEVER SEE THEM AGAIN" (Shemot 14:13).


            It is permitted to return to Egypt to secure merchandise or for business reasons or to conquer other territory (from its area).  The prohibition only concerns dwelling there permanently.  One does not, however, incur the punishment of lashes for the act, for at the time of entry it is permitted.  If one subsequently decides to dwell there permanently, it is by then a passive act…(Book of Shoftim, Laws of Melakhim, 5:7-8).


Here, Rambam confirms our textual analysis, for though he does cite the three references indicated by the Talmudic source, he does not, as that source did, list them chronologically.  Instead, he begins with the verse concerning the king, for as we saw earlier, it is this source of the three that is most clearly stated in the language of obligation.  Only at the end does he include the reference from our Parasha, although Rabbi Shimon had mentioned it first.


In addition, Rambam informs us of some important qualifications to the legislation, for it now emerges that not ANY return to Egypt is forbidden.  Only one who descends to Egypt with intent to dwell there permanently is in direct violation of the Torah law.  One who temporarily visits for the sake of securing business or merchandise is permitted to do so.  Although if the latter subsequently decides to remain permanently then a transgression does take place, there is no formal punishment of lashes incurred since there was no active abrogation of the command.





What remains to be addressed, of course, is the text of our passage in Parashat Beshalach.  What could be meant by Rabbi Shimon's insistence that Moshe's words at Yam Suf constitute the pronouncement of a negative MITZVA when the context and the tone surely suggest otherwise?  How are we to understand the necessity of transforming Moshe's words into a formal commandment when we have two other perfectly acceptable sources for the law, with one of them – concerning the king – an almost explicit reference?


The commentaries provide a number of rationales to explain the prohibition of dwelling in Egypt, many adopting Rambam's contention that "that country's ways are more corrupt than any other land".  In other words, the moral laxness of its inhabitants constitutes a dangerous source of attraction to all those that dwell in its midst.  It is, of course, somewhat difficult to support this thesis in light of what we know of many other countries and cultures, much less to assign it eternal validity.  Perhaps our context can assist us in suggesting another possibility.


Recall that the people of Israel had scarcely left the land of Egypt when God guided them to the shores of Yam Suf.  While it is the case that they had marched forward from the brick pits with all the noble bearing of liberated men – "the people of Israel went out with hands held high (triumphantly)" (14:8) – their newfound courage and pride was mere euphoric posturing.  Though they themselves had witnessed the demolishment of Egyptian power and the crumbling of Pharaoh's resolve before the God of Israel, they had yet to begin to internalize the profundity of their new destiny as free men.  That is why just a short time later, confronted by the crashing waves of the sea on the one side and by the thundering Egyptian war machine on the other, the people of Israel came undone.  Their proud bearing vanished, their new-found identity dissolved, their desire to be bound no more in cruel bondage evaporated with the spray of the sea.  They cried out against the God who had saved them, they derided their loyal leader Moshe who had taken them out, and most tellingly of all, they resolved then and there to return to Egypt!  While we can hardly hold them accountable for their outburst (would we have responded differently?), we can perhaps begin to better comprehend the veiled meaning behind Moshe's address at that moment:


Moshe said to the people: 'Do not be afraid!  Be steadfast and you will see the salvation of God that He will do for you this day, for though you see Egypt today, you will never see them again.  God will wage war for you, while you be silent!' (14:13-14).


Moshe's words, spoken with true sincerity and leadership, must have found their mark, for in an instant, the proverbial tides were turned.  The Israelites, now steadfast in their reliance and no doubt desperate in their resolve, descended into the churning depths and the waters miraculously opened up before them!  The Egyptian host pursued them with wild abandon but was dashed against the rocks, and Israel emerged once again into the blinding light of liberty.  But their spiritual struggle was not yet over, for the memory of their servitude in Egypt would continue to hold them in its thralls for quite some time (for examples from our Parasha, see their outcries at the manna, 16:2-3, and at Refidim, 17:3). 


At that pivotal moment, the people pronounced their terrible lament: "were there no graves in Egypt that you took us out to perish in the wilderness?  What have you done to us to take us out of Egypt?  Did we not say to you while we were yet in Egypt: 'Let us alone to serve the Egyptians, for serving them is better than perishing in the wilderness'?" (14:11-12).  Rabbi Shimon maintains, in a profound reading of the underlying themes, that Moshe's response was not simply to offer the people words of strength at that moment in order to shore up their broken resolve, but to impress upon them an eternal truth: THERE CAN BE NO RETURN TO EGYPTIAN SERVITUDE, NOT NOW, NOT LATER, NOT EVER.  There can be no return to the bearing of the slave who submits to his master and absorbs his blows, who casts off initiative and embraces hopelessness, who prefers the predictable terror of the brick pits to the challenge of exercising the moral will.  Egypt may be a geographical place, but in the conscience of the people of Israel it is also a state of being.  The Torah prohibits the Jew from taking up permanent residence in Egypt not because it is necessarily more corrupt than other lands, but rather because such an act symbolizes the conscious desire to return to the demeanor of the slave and to his cursed lot.


Thus, the prohibition of dwelling in Egypt, now understood as the prohibition of taking on the slave identity anew, is revealed to the people for the first time not in the Book of Devarim concerning the king or else in the passage of Rebuke, but at the shores of the Sea of Reeds.  It is there that the people waver between abhorrence for their former taskmasters and their desire to be pressed into their service once again, between a nascent appreciation of freedom's precious challenges and the numbing memory of slavery's refuge, between the deep blue waters of Yam Suf and the deafening whir of Pharaoh's chariot wheels.  And it is there that God informs them, by way of Moshe's stirring words, that there is only one possible choice – "Speak to the people of Israel and tell them to go forward!" (14:15)


Shabbat Shalom