Egypt in Contrast

BY
hero image
The pyramids at Giza in Egypt
10 Apr 2019
Inspiration

Often, it’s not really a good idea to inspire through contrast. For instance, “Oy, your older brother gives me such trouble; don’t be like him!” is probably not the best way to instill positive values and behavior.

Another great example can be found in the old Berenstain Bears books, in which Papa Bear was portrayed as a bumbling fool who messed up every attempt to impart lessons to his small son. In the one I remember best, the cub was subjected to his father’s demonstrations (and repeated accidents) before being allowed to ride his new bike. After each mishap, Papa would repeat the same refrain: This is what you should not do; let this be a lesson to you. The much more sensible son was very patient with his father, and expressed appreciation for the lessons, but clearly the lesson-by-contrast was not intentional, nor was it the safest way to teach.

On the other hand, comparing and contrasting can be a helpful analytical tool in many contexts, including Tanach. Some contrasts are set up explicitly in Tanach (e.g., the characters of Avigayil and Naval), others derived midrashically (e.g., Avraham and Noach, and their respective efforts to inspire others), and still others begun in the pesukim are expanded in midrashic tradition (e.g., Yaakov and Esav). With each of these pairs, we compare and contrast in order to highlight characteristics we might wish to emulate or avoid – to discover how to be, by learning how not to be.

This is what you should not do; let this be a lesson to you.

The same tool can be used with places, as well. On the verge of entering Canaan, Moshe describes the land in terms of how it differs from Egypt: “For the land which you are going there to inherit is not like the land of Egypt, from which you came, where you planted your seed and irrigated with your foot like a garden of vegetables. The land that you are crossing there to inherit is a land of mountains…it drinks water as rain…” (Devarim 11:10-11). Egypt is portrayed as a lush, easily irrigated land of opportunity, a “garden of vegetables”; Canaan, in distinct contrast, needs rain, a much less certain source of water than the Nile River. So why does Moshe tell them this now? Does he want to make them regret leaving Egypt, and dread entering Canaan?

Of course not. Moshe goes on to explain how Canaan is indeed better than Egypt: “Hashem, your G-d, seeks it. The eyes of Hashem are always upon it….”

The thing about rain is that it depends on G-d – and living in a place that very obviously depends on G-d just might inspire a person, or a nation, to behave in a manner that will earn G-d’s favor and perhaps to turn to Him in prayer for that favor.

In the Torah’s contrasting portrayal, then, Egypt represents a life of physical ease and certainty, while Canaan represents a more spiritually-infused life, full of uncertainty that offers tremendous potential for an intimate relationship with G-d. He watches the land to give it what it needs – but we must do our part. We pray because our needs depend on Him; we strive to follow His Torah, the path to becoming worthy of His help. Knowing we need him inspires us to invite Him into our lives – a component missing in the contrasting model of Egypt.

And if we back up, long before that statement in Devarim, we might discover that the symbolic significance of these two lands didn’t begin with our exodus from Egypt and path to Canaan, but with the first person promised the land of Canaan.

In Bereishit 12, G-d sends Avraham (then Avram) to Canaan, where he is almost immediately faced with a challenge common in that uncertain land – a severe famine – and heads to Egypt. Famine in Canaan seems to be a thing in Tanach, along with going to Egypt for food; it’s an understandable motif, given the contrast between them.

Midrashim tell us the famine was a test, but what did it test and how did Avraham pass? A narrow approach might look at Avraham’s reaction in the moment, and that he didn’t complain. However, we might also suggest a broader perspective: Perhaps the test was in forcing Avraham to experience the world of Egypt as well as the world of Canaan, and passing required choosing between them. That choice was made gradually, in steps, as Avraham affirmed his commitment to Canaan and the relationship with G-d it represents – in contrast to, and rejecting, the easier but less meaningful life represented by Egypt. This is what you should not do.

A full examination of that series of choices would take much more than the space here, but let’s consider just a few highlights.

In the beginning of chapter 13, Avraham and his household return from Egypt “to the place of the altar, which he had made there at first; and Avram called there in the name of Hashem.” The verse seems to hint that Egypt did not change him, at least not for the worse: Avraham is right back where he was, building the same relationship with G-d as if he had not been interrupted by Egypt.

In contrast, Avraham’s nephew, Lot was indeed affected by their travels. They soon discover that with all the mouths they have to feed and the uncertain resources of Canaan, “the land could not bear them to live together” (13:6). At that point, Lot “saw the entire plain of the Jordan, that it was all irrigated…like the garden of G-d, like the land of Egypt…” (v. 10). Lot chooses Sodom, despite the wickedness of its inhabitants (v.13), because it reminds him of the fertile Egyptian paradise he just left.

While Lot was the one to choose, and although (according to most commentaries) his chosen home was part of Canaan, the Torah describes his choice in contrast to Avraham’s remaining in Canaan, as if they were two distinct places and as if Avraham too made an active decision: “Avraham settled in the land of Canaan, and Lot dwelled in the cities of the plain” (v. 12).

The choosing of sides continues in chapter 14, when Avraham returns from an astounding military victory (and rescue of Lot) and is greeted by a contrasting pair of figures: The king of Sodom, that fertile but G-d-less place, offers him physical goods; Malkitzedek, a priest, offers him blessings of G-d and acknowledgment of G-d’s role in Avraham’s victory. Confronted by this pair, Avraham rejects the wealth of Sodom and voices his commitment to G-d and the role He has begun to play in his life. “I have raised my hand to G-d…that I will not take… anything of yours, and you will not say ‘I made Avraham rich.’” (14:22-23). Avraham knows he can depend on G-d for his physical needs, and wants nothing to do with the wealth of a place like Sodom and Egypt. This is what you should not do.

The Egypt motif continues in the next chapters, as Avraham tries producing an heir with an Egyptian woman but discovers that heritage is not right for G-d’s nation. This is what you should not do. We will conclude, though, with just one point from chapter 15.

When G-d foretells slavery in Egypt, He doesn’t name the place but tells Avraham his children will be “strangers in a land that is not theirs” (v. 13). The name of the land isn’t as important as the idea it represents, and the point that what it represents is not for us. This is what you should not do; let this be a lesson to you.

Avraham spent time in Egypt to see whether he would be tempted by its physical comforts – and returned to Canaan unaffected, repeatedly affirming his commitment to G-d and to developing a relationship with Him.

His descendants, too, spent time in Egypt – and had difficulty leaving. “We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free, the cucumbers, the melons…” (Shemot 11:5). It was hard to adjust to being fed by the man, exclusively and totally reliant on Hashem. But perhaps that experience was a necessary stage as the people began getting to know G-d and developing an active relationship with Him.

As we prepare to relive our national exodus from Egypt on Pesach, we might think about the symbolism of experiencing Egypt and leaving. Whether or not we are privileged to live in the land of Israel (where, certainly, there remain challenges to physical comforts), we have an ongoing opportunity and responsibility to affirm our rejection of the Egypt-life and commitment to the Canaan-life. As the pesukim in Devarim illustrate, Canaan might seem like the raw end of the deal; we can understand Lot’s choice, and we face regular tests to determine whether we too will be influenced by the appeal of surrounding cultures or whether we will steadfastly raise our hands to G-d, resolving to take nothing of the world but that which He deems right for us.

On Pesach and every day, we can reaffirm our commitment to G-d and invite Him to play an active role in our lives, as symbolized by the land that is ours.


Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.