The Lord spoke to Moshe, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: I am the Lord your God. You shall not follow the practices of the land of Egypt in which you lived, and you shall not follow the practices of the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you, and you shall not follow their statutes.” (Vayikrah 18:1-3)

Besides for this prohibition to imitate the promiscuous and abhorrent ways of Egypt, the Torah also warns against returning to that accursed country (Devarim 17:16), “…and he [the king] shall not return the people to Egypt in order to amass horses, as the Lord has said to you: You shall not return again on that way anymore.” Indeed, over the centuries, the Jewish community in Egypt often had to come up with justifications for its very existence. Rabbi David ibn Zimra (Radbaz, 1479-1573), who himself served as the Chief Rabbi of Egypt for four decades, ponders how his predecessor Rambam could have lived there for so long when he clearly rules in the Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Melachim 5:7) that one is prohibited to live there. He offers several explanations. Furthermore, the Torah prohibits converts from Egypt to marry into the general population until the third generation (Devarim 23:9). Practically, this prohibition no longer exists as the Torah only forbade the ancient Egyptians and not the ‘new’ nation that lives there today (Rambam, Hilchot Issurei Biah, 12:25). 

Egypt was not just a problematic place in the times of the Exodus. During the First Temple era, there was a Jewish community in Egypt that had fallen into idolatrous habits. Jeremiah (chapter 44) spoke to them at length and warned them to forsake their corrupt ways. He prophesied the destruction of the Jewish community there and he spoke of how, “Pharaoh Hophra king of Egypt would be delivered into the hand of his enemies and into the hand of those who seek his soul.” Ezekiel (29:2-5) also prophesied against Egypt, “Thus said the Lord Hashem: Behold I am against you, Pharaoh, king of Egypt, the great crocodile that crouches within its rivers, who has said, ‘Mine is my river, and I have made myself [powerful]!’” 

The righteous King Josiah, who cleansed the Kingdom of Judah of idolatry and held a massive Pesach celebration in the Temple (II Kings 23), met his downfall at the hands of Pharaoh Neco. The Egyptians were passing through the Kingdom of Judah to make war against the Assyrians. Josiah sent word to the Egyptian ruler not to use his territory as a ‘short-cut’ to his battle. Pharaoh assured him that he had no quarrel with the people of Judah but Josiah was not convinced.  He went out in a chariot to confront Neco and he was attacked by archers who pierced his body with many arrows.  The full account appears in the Book of Chronicles II, chapter 35.

In modern times, Egypt has been a formidable enemy of the State of Israel. Egypt participated in or instigated wars against Israel in 1948 (the War of Independence), 1954 (The Suez Crisis), 1967 (the Six Day War) and 1973 (the Yom Kippur War). And then, in November 1977, something startling took place. The president of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, made it known that it was his intention to go to Jerusalem and speak before the Knesset. Shortly afterwards, the Israeli government cordially invited him to address the Knesset in a message passed to Sadat via the US ambassador to Egypt. Ten days after his speech, Sadat arrived for the groundbreaking three-day visit which launched the first peace process between Israel and an Arab state. This process culminated in the Camp David Accords, a pair of political agreements signed by Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin on 17 September 1978, following twelve days of secret negotiations at Camp David. Due to the agreement, Sadat and Begin received the shared 1978 Nobel Peace Prize

The Camp David Accords and the subsequent peace treaty signed by Israel and Egypt in 1979 were lauded by many as a groundbreaking initiative, but not everyone was happy. A major opponent of the Accords and the Treaty was the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of blessed memory. In his book Rebbe, Joseph Telushkin explains why the Rebbe opposed the peace talks (chapter 20, Israel), “He argued that returning conquered land would certainly not strengthen Israel’s security; in addition to losing territory that could serve as an important buffer in case of war, the Rebbe felt that Israel’s succumbing to pressure would subject her to ever greater and continuing demands for the return of yet more land. Not only would doing so not ensure Israel’s security, it could earn her contempt from those, including the United States, who would come to believe that Israel could be pressured into acting against her own best interests. Yet another point the Rebbe would often make, and this is not widely known, was that he felt that Israel’s not conceding territories would save Arab lives as well, lives that would be needlessly lost in conflict; in every Israeli/Arab war, far more Arabs than Jews have been killed. The Rebbe always insisted that his opposition to returning land was not just a personal view, but represented the opinion of Israel’s military and security officials as well. He did, however, also say that if Israel’s security officials concluded that Israel would be safer from a purely security perspective if it returned certain territories, then it should do so.” The Rebbe communicated to Yehuda Avner, Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s assistant, his opposition to the proposed treaty and Begin (who respected the Rebbe enormously) answered with one Yiddish word, “Azoi”, “so be it”.

Telushkin continues with what I believe is an incredible and prescient point made by the Rebbe. “The Rebbe explained that he had opposed negotiations with Egypt from the beginning, viewing it as a negotiation in which one party, Israel, ‘gives all, and the other party [Egypt] takes all. For what Israel gave to Egypt was tangible vital resources, including territory, airfields [and] oil wells,’ while Egypt ‘gives in return no more than promises.’ True, Egypt offered an exchange of ambassadors and the normalisation of relations, but the problem is that what Israel gave Egypt was given irrevocably and made the country both poorer and less secure, while what Egypt promised Israel in return ‘could be revoked at any moment under one pretext or another.’” Telushkin notes that, remarkably, one of those who seemed to agree with the Rebbe’s analysis was Anwar Sadat himself: “An October 19, 1980, article in the New York Times reported that Sadat declared, one presumes with a smile, to his colleagues, ‘Poor Menachem [Begin]; he has his problems. I got back 90 percent of the Sinai and the Alma oil fields, and what has Menachem got? A piece of paper.’”   

I am not sure whether Israel has ever tangibly benefitted from returning land and, in some cases such as the withdrawal from Gaza, the security situation seems to have worsened rather than improved. The Rebbe had amazing insight but was also extremely pragmatic when it came to the security of the State of Israel. Following the Six day War, when Israel suddenly experienced a tremendous demographic shift, with Arabs now constituting 40 percent of those living under Israeli rule versus 15 percent before the War, the Rebbe felt that this “was a result of a tremendous error made by the Israeli military at the time Judea and Samaria were captured. “From what I recall [writes Telushkin], he basically said: When Israel took control of Judea and Samaria, the soldiers should have said to the Arabs living there, ‘You made it known that had you conquered us, you would have killed us, man, woman, and child. We are not like you. We will not kill you, but you cannot expect us to let people who wish to kill us continue to live among us.’ In the Rebbe’s view, Israel should have told the Arabs to leave and go across the border to Jordan. I remember him saying something to the effect that, during the war, following those awful days in which Arab leaders had been issuing repeated death threats against Israel and her citizens, the world would have accepted such an action; it would have struck people as understandable self-defense, and the Arabs would have been relieved that the Israelis did not do to them what they would have done to the Israelis. But once the war ended, Israel lost the opportunity to rid itself of enemies who wished to destroy her. Outside of wartime itself, such behavior by Israel, forcing Arabs out of Judea and Samaria, would not be possible.”

Alas, the Rebbe saw it clearly when others did not. Unfortunately, the State of Israel continues to pay the price for having enemies living in its midst. The brutal attack of the seventh of October is ominous proof that you cannot live next door to people who want to kill you. Even if Hamas are vanquished, the Arabs in Gaza and the West Bank will not suddenly change their outlook to Israel. They will remain implacable foes of the Jewish people. It is an almost insoluble problem. I pray that Hashem will guide the Israeli leaders to a real solution that will ensure the safety and security of all Israel’s citizens.

Lee, Chani Merryl and Naomi join me in wishing you Shabbat Shalom!   

Rabbi Liebenberg

Link to Rabbi’s YouTube message for the parsha: https://youtu.be/TnjmSkxKFY8?si=_MImCnh__1V_5Zjo

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