Acharei Mot תשפב 

Last week we celebrated the Festival of Passover, commemorating the Jewish nation’s exodus from 210 years of Egyptian slavery. In this week’s portion, Acharei Mot, the Torah instructs us (Leviticus 18:3):

(ג) כְּמַעֲשֵׂה אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם אֲשֶׁר יְשַׁבְתֶּם בָּהּ לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ וּכְמַעֲשֵׂה אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי מֵבִיא אֶתְכֶם שָׁמָּה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ וּבְחֻקֹּתֵיהֶם לֹא תֵלֵכוּ

3) Do not follow the ways of Egypt where you once lived, or of Canaan, where I will be bringing you. Do not follow any of their customs. 

Rashi’s commentary on this verse notes: 

מגיד שמעשיהם של מצריים ושל כנעניים מקולקלים מכל האומות ואותו מקום שישבו בו ישראל מקולקל מן הכל

This teaches us that the ways of the Egyptians and the Canaanites were more depraved than those of all the other nations, and that the places where the Jews dwelled were even more depraved than any other. 

Could this be a coincidence? The place where Hashem chose to exile the Jewish people should specifically be the most depraved society in the world? And the country to which they would go would also be from the lowest of the low? What could be the reason for this? 

Our Sages teach us that there is a deep and profound reason for this arrangement. When two opposing forces confront each other, it is natural that each of the forces becomes stronger and more insulated within itself. When both are challenged by the abhorrent ways of the other, they galvanize themselves against any influence from the other side. From being in Egypt, the Jewish people became stronger in their resolve to be moral and guarded from immorality. 

This is one of the goals of an exile, and why Hashem would exile the Jewish people specifically to a depraved society. When Hashem wants the Jewish people to perfect a certain area of their character or observance, He puts them into a society that is particularly lax in that very matter. This allows the Jews to see how, if they aren’t careful in this area, they will become like the people among whom they are living. Because this is an abhorrent thought to them, in response, they naturally recoil and create barriers to protect themselves from the ways of their hosts, retreating to the holy and moral ways of the Torah. 

The Egyptians were particularly depraved in matters of immorality and promiscuity. The verse quoted above is warning us directly not to engage in any of their abhorrent promiscuous ways. This law is for all future generations. 

Our Sages teach us that the Jews who left Egypt did not engage in any of the Egyptian’s ways and that Hashem went out of His way to teach us this point: When counting the Jewish people by family in Numbers chapter 26, the Torah added a letter י (yud) and a letter ה (heh) to names of each of the families being counted in the census. 

For example: 

(ו) לְחֶצְרֹן מִשְׁפַּחַת הַחֶצְרוֹנִי לְכַרְמִי מִשְׁפַּחַת הַכַּרְמִי:

These letters comprise one of Hashem’s names, and our Sages teach us that Hashem added His name to each family to testify that they were pure in their lineage and had not intermarried with the Egyptians.  One would have thought that just as the Egyptians controlled the Jewish men, they would similarly have controlled their women and had their way with them. Therefore, Hashem went out of His way, so to speak, to indicate clearly that that was not the case. 

Indeed, this attribute of modesty held by the Jewish men and women who left Egypt is cited in a Midrash (quoted below) as one of the redeeming factors that entitled them to leave Egypt. Had this not been the case, the lineage of the multitudes of “Jews” in Egypt would have been mixed with the Egyptians, and they would not have been the pure descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov to whom Hashem had promised the redemption. Had the Jews assimilated among the Egyptians, the whole redemption would have been impossible in that a holy nation with its holy beginnings would never have emerged from Egypt. 

But were all the Jews in Egypt completely distinct and not assimilated into the surrounding society? It would seem from the teachings of our Sages that most of the Jews had actually assimilated and therefore did not merit to leave Egypt. The Midrash (Shemot Rabba 1:8) teaches us: 

When the Rabbis began telling the story of the Jews in Egypt, they began with this verse (Hoshea 5:7). 

רבנן פתחין פתחא להאי קרא (הושע ה) בה’ בגדו כי בנים זרים ילדו עתה יאכלם חודש את חלקיהם ללמדך כשמת יוסף הפרו ברית מילה אמרו נהיה כמצרים … וכיון שעשו כן הפך הקב”ה האהבה שהיו המצריים אוהבין אותן לשנאה… ויקם מלך חדש שעמד וחדש עליהם גזרותיו

“They have rebelled against Hashem for they begot alien children, now their enemies will introduce new edicts to devour them.”  This teaches us that after the death of Joseph, the Jews ceased to do Brit Milah, so as to be like the Egyptians. Once they did this, Hashem turned the love that the Egyptians had for the Jews into hatred towards them. This is the meaning of “And a new king arose”- he introduced new edicts against the Jews.

We see from the Midrash that after Yosef’s death, the men ceased doing ritual circumcision because it created a natural barrier between them and the Egyptians. While Yosef was alive, the Jews had no concerns for their safety as Jews because Yosef was in the palace to protect them. Once Yosef died, they became concerned. What if the Egyptians began targeting them because they were different? They thus did whatever they could to minimize the differences between them and the Egyptians so that they could blend in and mingle with them. They thought that looking like them and acting like them would minimize the tendency to hate them and cause them suffering. This mingling and closeness to the Egyptians begot alien children, as they married Egyptian women and bore non-Jewish children from them.

This Midrash further teaches us that their actions actually had the exact opposite effect. Indeed, this was the trigger that incited Pharaoh to introduce new decrees against the Jewish people to annihilate them. Counterintuitively, the Jewish people seeking to “blend in” and act like the Egyptians only caused them to reject the Jews and hate them. “Don’t act like you are one of us!” they would say. “You are a Jew and don’t you ever forget it!” (Sound familiar?) 

The Sages point to this as the beginning of the story of the Jews in Egypt, and how the slavery began. 

There is, however, a contradictory Midrash (Vayikra Rabba V 32:5). 

רב הונא אמר בשם בר קפרא בשביל ד’ דברים נגאלו ישראל ממצרים שלא שנו את שמם ואת לשונם ולא אמרו לשון הרע ולא נמצא ביניהן אחד מהן פרוץ בערוה

Rav Huna quoted Bar Kapara: “Four factors made possible the Jews’ exodus from Egypt. 1. They did not change their names, 2. They did not change their language, 3. They did not speak evil about one another, 4. There wasn’t even one promiscuous person among them.”

This Midrash directly contradicts the previous one. Here, the Midrash tells us that the Jews protected their identity. They would not change their names or the Holy language they conversed in, refusing to blend into the society around them by speaking the common language. It also says very clearly that they completely rejected and safeguarded themselves from Egypt’s immoral ways. How do we resolve this blatant contradiction? 

The resolution lies in a third Midrash (Shemoth Rabba 14:3). 

(ג) חשך למה הביא עליהן יתברך שמו של הקב”ה …לפי שהיו פושעים בישראל שהיה להן פטרונין מן המצריים והיה להן שם עושר וכבוד ולא היו רוצים לצאת. אמר הקב”ה אם אביא עליהן מכה בפרהסיא וימותו יאמרו המצריים כשם שעבר עלינו כך עבר עליהן לפיכך הביא על המצריים את החשך ג’ ימים כדי שיהיו קוברין מתיהם ולא יהיו רואין אותן שונאיהם ויהיו משבחין להקב”ה על כך

Why did Hashem bring the plague of darkness upon the Egyptians? Because there were Jewish scofflaws with exemptions from the Egyptians and with much honor and wealth, who did not want to leave Egypt. Hashem said, “If they die openly in a plague, the Egyptians will say, ‘See? The Jews are dying in plagues also!’” Therefore, Hashem brought the plague of darkness, so the Jewish people could bury their dead without the Egyptians seeing. 

These are the Jews who abrogated ritual circumcision, abandoned their Jewish language, and changed their names to blend into Egyptian culture. It is easy to understand why they completely gave up their Jewish identity. We see from this Midrash that assimilation into Egyptian society brought both an exemption from slave labor and the opportunity to amass wealth. How could anybody resist? 

How many people died in the plague of darkness? The Torah tell us (Exodus 13:18):  

וַחֲמֻשִׁים עָלוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם:

18) One out of five Jewish people left Egypt.

Rashi reveals that the other four fifths died during the plague of darkness. 

What about the plagues and all the miracles associated with them? Didn’t they see them? How could they remain unaffected? 

It seems that those Jews in Egypt, being far from Hashem, may have viewed the plagues as a natural phenomenon where one freak act of nature brought on another. Or perhaps they felt that it was magic, as the Egyptians were proficient magicians. Either way, one cannot be forced to believe something he wishes not to believe. 

Now we have the whole picture. Indeed, four fifths of the Jewish nation stopped performing ritual circumcision and surely changed their names and language to blend into Egyptian society. Hence, when it came time to leave, knowing that they had no intentions of going out with their brethren, Hashem had them die during the plague of darkness. 

The one fifth who actually left were the ones who held strongly on to their Jewish identity. They resisted the temptation to accept their Egyptian captors’ advanced and glamorous lifestyle, and, against much pressure, carefully maintained their Jewish identity and the customs and traditions of their forefathers. They did not change their names and did not change their language. They also did not seek to fraternize with Egyptian women or blend into Egyptian society. They did not father alien children. They held strongly onto their belief in Hashem, and in the merit of these attributes were worthy of leaving Egypt as the holy nation of Hashem. 

Seeing things from this perspective a subtle point emerges. The sojourn in Egypt was really a testing ground to bring forth from the Jewish nation the hardiest and most qualified candidates, worthy of becoming the kernel of Hashem’s holy nation. The people who ultimately left Egypt waged a valiant war against the overpowering influence of the surrounding Egyptian culture. They refused to trade in their holy way of life with its hallowed traditions for the depraved ways of the Egyptians, even though it would relieve them of their slavery and poverty. For hundreds of years, they consistently and reliably resisted the temptations of the Egyptians, and perhaps even the urgings of their Jewish counterparts who had assimilated, to give up the antiquated ways of their forefathers for the promise of freedom and wealth.  Emerging whole with their faith in Hashem and their deep connection to their forefathers from the crucible of Egypt, created the miraculous group of people, the Jewish nation, that would be equipped to carry Hashem’s torch of holiness and morality for thousands of years into the future against all influences and odds. 

Understanding the Jewish slavery in Egypt this way provides us with the answer to a very difficult question.

We celebrate the holiday of Passover to commemorate Hashem having freed us from the slavery in Egypt. For that, we owe Hashem our lives and must dedicate our lives to keeping His Torah and mitzvot. But didn’t Hashem put us into Egypt in the first place? He told Avraham our forefather that his children would be slaves in a foreign land for four hundred years. If I tied you up and locked you in a room for a week, making your life miserable, and then set you free, would you owe me a debt of gratitude for giving you your freedom? I’d probably be lucky if you didn’t kill me for all the grief that I caused you! So why the Passover celebration? 

Rabbi Elazar Ashkenazi (1513-1586) in his magnum opus Maase Hashem (published 1583) explains that Hashem telling Avraham our forefather that his children would be slaves in Egypt was the best piece of news he could ever want to hear, and that Avraham was elated with the news. Why was that? 

Avraham had spent his entire life spreading belief in Hashem to the people of his time. He was very successful, and, due to his efforts, more and more people left idol worship for belief in Hashem, One G-d. Avraham, though, had one very disturbing and frightening concern. He had no children, and according to the astrological reading of stars, he was not destined to have any either. Who would carry on his holy work and promote belief in Hashem after he passed away? The only hope on the horizon was his servant Eliezer. Although Eliezer was Avraham’s accomplished apprentice and was versed in all of Avraham’s arguments for refuting idol worship, he nevertheless was a descendant of Canaan who had been cursed by Noach such that Avraham did not feel that it could succeed.  

But when Hashem told him that his children would be slaves in Egypt, Avraham suddenly realized that his holy work would continue until then and that his offspring would be a known group of Hashem’s servants, the very Hashem that he gave his life to publicize. His holy work would continue long after his death. Not only that. Hashem told him that He would punish the nation who enslaved them. That meant that Hashem would make public miracles that would broadcast His power and control of the world. The whole world would finally see Hashem in all His glory. Avraham was overjoyed to hear that a great sanctification of Hashem’s name would come forth from his offspring. For Avraham, nothing could be greater than that. 

True, the slavery would bring difficult challenges, but meeting those challenges would galvanize and mold his children into a strong and holy nation explicitly chosen to carry Hashem’s torch into the world until the end of time. 

The slavery in Egypt bestowed another essential benefit to the Jewish people. The third attribute cited as to why they merited leaving Egypt was that they did not speak “Lashon Hara” – disparagingly about one another. This dovetails with the Midrash (Tana Devai Eliyahu Rabbah 23) that tells us: 

 וכשהיו ישראל במצרים נתקבצו כולם וישבו יחד משום שהיו כלם באגודה אחת וכרתו ברית יחד שיעשו ג”ח זה עם זה

When the Jewish people were in Egypt, they gathered as one unit, and created a pact with each other to bestow kindness upon and help to each other. 

Under the difficult and back breaking conditions in Egypt, the Jewish people realized that there was no person that could survive the hardships alone. Each person needed to help and support his fellow Jew. They didn’t just agree that they would help each other, they created a treaty with each other, a hard and fast commitment that they would help each other in times of need. The unity and interdependence that was created between the Jews in Egypt was essential to the identity of the Jewish nation. Hashem, who is “One,” can only have a relationship with a nation that is also “one.” Before Hashem could take the Jews from Egypt and give them the Torah, his people had to become a unit of one. 

Not speaking lashon hara about one another was also part of this treaty. There could be no rifts between them. They needed to see only the good in one another without ever saying a negative word. By supporting each other completely, the Jewish nation became a unit of one through the slavery in Egypt.  This also was one of Hashem’s reasons for putting them there.  

This being the case, the correct metaphor would be of a father who knew that his son was going to get lost in a jungle, and he forced him to attend a boot camp where they teach jungle survival tactics. It was difficult and grueling and the son hated every minute of it. Needless to say, he was very upset at his father for putting him in such a trying situation. But, when he found himself alone in a jungle with the skills and know-how to survive, he realized and appreciated the great favor that his father had done for him. If not for his excellent training, he would surely have perished in the jungle. In this case, he would be eternally grateful to his father for preparing him adequately for his upcoming ordeal. 

Egypt was a training ground equal to the training given to Navy SEALS. The Jews who survived Egypt as Jews were equipped to represent the Jewish nation until the end of time. 

And here we are, 3334 years later, going through what it seems our forefathers went through in Egypt. In a society where renowned scientists and intellectuals deny Hashem, we hold tenaciously on to the Torah and its mitzvot. We have not changed our names, nor have we changed our language.

If Mashiach came today, how many Jews would follow him to Israel?  Would we be among them? We can be sure that we will be part of them by strengthening our ties to the Torah and mitzvot. Additionally, we must try to be better about helping our fellow Jew and not speaking lashon hara about him. 

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  1. sarah Krakauer

    Rabbi Avi Cohen this devar Torah is so amazingly clear and strong, my husband and i want to thank you warmly, tizku lemitzvos, chazak veyaametz

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