Parashat Shoftim

Never Return to Egypt

Resisting the temptation to return, geographically or psychologically, to the site of our bondage

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Ramban (also known as Nahmanides, 1194-1270, roughly a contemporary of Maimonides), leads us down a different exegetical path by focusing on the behavioral aspect of the commandment. He writes: "the reason for this mitzvah [of not settling in Egypt] was because the Egyptians and Canaanites were unsavory and sinners against God." Ramban then quotes Leviticus 18:3 which warns the Israelites against imitating the practices of the Egyptians and Canaanites.

He continues, "for God wanted to make sure that they would not learn from their [the Egyptians'] ways . . . and so God warned them [the Israelites] not to return to their [the Egyptians'] land -- to Egypt." For Ramban, the larger more consequential issue in the prohibition against living in the Land of Egypt is behavioral. The Torah's concern is that Israel abide by its own particular way of life. God's Revelation on Sinai and Moses' legislation gave the Israelites a distinct way of life that leads to holy (and wholly) different possibilities from the ones these former slaves knew in Egypt. The Torah intimately understands the seduction of return and so legislates against it.

The notion of opposing a return to Egypt becomes all the more timely as we approach Rosh Hodesh Elul, the new month of Elul. Elul, the month leading up to the Yamim Noraim (the Days of Awe) is a time we are given to think about and act on the principle of teshuvah, repentance, or literally, returning. The options before us are twofold-- as they were before the biblical Israelites-- returning to Egypt or returning to God. The former implies continued oppression and enslavement to materialism, ignorance and complacency; the latter implies hope, vision, and possibilities. Parashat Shoftim, in all of its wisdom, and the rabbis, in all of their wisdom, keenly understood the seduction of the old and the familiar--the challenge is to break with the attraction toward a brighter and more hopeful future.

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Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz

A Wexner Fellow ordained in 1999 by the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Matthew L. Berkowitz is the senior rabbinic fellow in JTS's KOLLOT: Voices of Learning program.