The Tree of Life

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Scuba Diving
24 Apr 2008

I like to think of them as the “bad” boys and girls of Eilat, a group of Israeli friends who tend to be in their late twenties and early thirties with a peculiar culture of life that I don’t follow: they all drive motorcycles and are avid chain smokers, they all sport multiple body piercings and an elaborate array of artwork in the form of tattoos. But I am as much of an enigma to them as they are a mystery to me. They don’t understand my culture of life either, or why a financially stable, middle-aged, orthodox American Jew keeps coming back to their dusty little resort town. We only have three things in common, but in my mind they are three things that count. We are Zionists and we are the descendents of Abraham, but most of all we are Eilat’s underwater Red Sea enthusiasts.

For several years now, these “bad” children of the south have been urging me to make a holy pilgrimage to the diver’s Mecca of Sharm El Sheikh, but are completely taken aback when I tell them I’ve decided to do that trek right after the holiday of Pesach. Then they are absolutely shocked when I announce my additional plans to go as far Cairo for 48 hours so I can walk the Giza Plateau and see Egypt’s Museum.

“Sharm El Sheikh, alright”, they agree, “but Cairo is not for you, rebbitzen. Even we don’t go that far!”

They have a point. There is a prohibition against returning to the land of our slavery, so I try and explain the motivation by telling them what’s bothering me, “In each and every generation, we are obligated to think of ourselves as if we, personally, had been taken out of Egypt. But I’m already a third generation American born one decade after the State of Israel came into existence. I don’t have much first-hand experience with anti-Semitism, and I’ve never been able to relate to the wandering Jew mentality.”

“So, you’re staging a re-enactment?” they ask.

“Not exactly”, I reply. “But there’s something that’s been puzzling me for years. Why is our historical and spiritual relationship with Egypt so definitive? Every day we are supposed to remind ourselves about the Exodus. The idea is contained in the very first of the Ten Commandments, ‘I am the Lord your G-d who took you out of the land of Egypt…’ and it’s also repeated in the Shema. It’s as if everything about our culture of life is in an on-going contrast to theirs.”

But the divers of Eilat urge me not to go diving for pieces of this puzzle in Cairo. None of them are religious, but to them it’s obvious. The Egyptians were notorious idol worshippers who deified the pharaohs.

“That doesn’t explain much,” I say. “The Egyptians weren’t exceptional in their practice of idolatry and even as slaves we already had an established relationship with G-d and a monotheistic belief that we’d inherited from Abraham.”

I head towards Cairo and ignore all the misgivings, but once there my travel cell starts to beep with regular precision. The bad boys and girls of Eilat have posted an hourly guard via SMS and the text that keeps popping up is this: “Where R U? R U safe?” Then they warn me that they will alert the American embassy as well as the Mossadniks if I don’t answer back pronto (which is just another endearing aspect of their culture-of-life Israeli mentality; despite the tough Sabra exteriors, each and every one of them has a heart fashioned out of the purest and the softest Jerusalem gold).

In the end I discover that 48 hours in Cairo is 47 hours too much. Once inside the museum, it doesn’t take long to be overwhelmed by what’s obvious. Ancient Egypt was clearly one of the most advanced civilizations of its time with impressive achievements in all the fields of art, science, medicine and mathematics. They had developed papyrus, hieroglyphics and possessed vast amounts of knowledge in areas of architecture, agriculture and astronomy. Combined with this was an incredible abundance of wealth and a massive supply of free-labor produced by the slave population. And every single bit of it, all of Egypt’s best was devoted to one thing and one thing only…the culture of death in every possible manner of exaltation. No matter how much time you spend in that museum, you will end up learning very little about how the ancient Egyptians lived, but on the other hand you’ll know absolutely everything about how they died.

On the second floor of the museum I come face to face with objects that are frightening in their similarity to the Torah’s specifications of the Aaron Kodesh – golden boxes with carrying staves, concentrically nested and designed with cherubs on top; elaborate golden creatures that face each other with opposable arched wings. And what was the purpose of these protective shrines? To house the mummified remains of the elite.

I pause before leaving the museum just to consider our own burial rites which are dignified in their simplicity and then suddenly remember the contrasting contents of our own covenantal ark, the tablets which represented the essentials of our code…the code of life! In every generation we are obligated to think of ourselves as if we, personally, had been taken out of the land of Egypt and freed, not only from slavery, but also from this extreme culture and adoration of death. Has anything changed in the past few thousand years? Obviously not.

The Jews are only one branch of Abraham’s family. There are other descendants who have spawned two major modern day religions. One is premised on a belief that a particular man’s brutal execution and the sacrifice of his life brings ongoing salvation to the world. The other has a growing radical population that glorifies the sacrifice of its brain-washed children who are raised as suicide bombers with promises about a paradise that awaits them.

Then I think about my own “bad” children of southern Israel. I’m not planning any more trips to Sharm El Sheikh, but I am surely headed back to Eilat. I want to thank my young friends for their concern and then lecture them all severely about the dangers of smoking and a few other aspects of their “life” style. Maybe they will think I’m being old fashioned, but I also want to remind them that in truth, we have more than three things in common . We are Zionists, we are descendants of Abraham and we are Eilat’s underwater Red Sea enthusiasts. But we have also been born of a tradition and embodied by a code that teaches us the best way to live… and not the best way to die!

G-d took us out of Egypt so He could give us that code on Mount Sinai. Most often we call it the Torah or the Five Books of Moses, but it also goes by another important description and that’s the one I think of when I walk out of Cairo’s museum. What the ancient Egyptians promoted was nothing more than an elaborate culture of death. But the amazing gift that G-d ultimately gave us was a unique set of laws and quite often we refer to it with the most beautiful and accurate description of all, “Etz Chaim he L’machazikim bah”.

It is a Tree of Life. Let us hold on to it…tightly.

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