By Larry Gordon
It is said that as Egypt goes, so goes the Arab world and some even say the entire Middle East. Well, Egypt is going, but no one is quite sure exactly where. As I was watching Al Jazeera’s coverage of the ongoing rioting in Egypt, I was wondering: Wow, can you imagine if there had been this kind of coverage of those original ten plagues more than 3,300 years ago? Where were Fox, CNN, and Al Jazeera when the then newly forming Jewish nation had to be miraculously extricated from Egyptian servitude? What a spectacle that must have been.
All this technology that is at our fingertips today did not exist, so obviously there was no TV or Internet coverage of those historic events. But then again, this is G‑d and His miracles at play, and He can do anything He pleases. Is today’s news coverage a peek back into the past?
So now it seems that instead of those archival videos, we have to do with what is taking place today and are limited to imagining what could have been if only those ancient events were recorded in some video format—other than Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments starring Charlton Heston in the 1950s.
So I’m watching Egypt become unglued right there before my eyes on Al Jazeera America, the new Arab news channel that debuted this week on cable systems around the U.S. You will recall that Al Jazeera bought the Current TV network from former vice-president Al Gore last year for $500 million. Courtesy of that transaction, we can now have the Qatar-based network broadcasting into our homes and onto our laptops and iPads.
Egypt, known to those of us who study Chumash as Mitzrayim in her previous incarnation, has always played a central role in the destiny of the Jewish people. Certainly there were many other nations aside from Egypt to which G‑d could have directed Jacob’s clan to settle in as they sought to escape famine. But no—Egypt and the Jews are “gebundin and geknipled,” which in Yiddish means bound and stapled.
Egypt is the most populous Arab country, with more than 80 million residents now, and until the first Camp David accords in 1979 it had always been considered the greatest military threat to Israel. The peace hatched between the two countries was a great thing but also ended up earning Egypt the enmity of the Arab world for being so bold as to attempt creating better lives for everyday people by seeking a genuine peace.
One of the always fascinating things to me, as an observer, about Egypt is that the people traditionally celebrate their nation’s defeat to Israel in the Yom Kippur War as if it were a victory of some kind. Essentially, they celebrate that it took Israel six days to defeat them in 1967, while in 1973 it took Israel a full three weeks and the need to endure many casualties to beat back the Egyptians. Only in the Arab world can defeat be sold to the mostly repressed public as a great victory. On a recent clip on Al Jazeera, I saw some military vehicles being driven over a roadway they referred to as the Sixth of October Bridge. That was the date on which the Yom Kippur War began, a war they believe they came close to winning.
It was the Yom Kippur War—whose 40th anniversary is approaching—that allowed Israel to come as close as possible to decimating the Egyptian military, to an even greater extent than was done in 1967. You may have read or, like me, recall that after some early setbacks under the leadership of General Ariel Sharon, the Israeli army managed to encircle the Egyptian military and were in a position to inflict serious damage to the Egyptians that would have set them back a hundred years.
Instead, it was then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in the administration of President Richard Nixon that negotiated an Israeli withdrawal from that overwhelming strategic position and allowed the Egyptians to withdraw and live another day. That, ladies and gentlemen, is their big victory that they celebrate to this very day.
Okay, so what about the differences between then and now? I mean between the times of Pharaoh and the short-lived era of the Muslim Brotherhood. An analysis here would be incomplete unless we also examined the utter miscalculations and incompetence of President Obama and his secretaries of State and of Defense, along with his foreign-policy advisers, who seem to spend more time blow-drying their hair than actually understanding the depth of the crisis continually unfolding in that region of the world.
Back in biblical times, Pharaoh was in a sense the deity worshipped by Egypt. They apparently believed in little else other than themselves and their own individual and independent abilities. And that was part of the lesson that the Exodus taught the Egyptians. The idea of the eser makkos—or the ten plagues—was to display startling and overwhelming shock and awe that would make it clear to Pharaoh and his advisers that there was a power greater than he that existed and ran this world. It took a few of those biblical drone strikes to get the Egyptian leader to acknowledge that reality by saying, after the plague of the infestation of tiny lice, that this is indeed the finger of G‑d.
Let’s take a look at the first and the last of these plagues and their connection and relevance to the ongoing current crisis in Egypt. The makkos were meant to bring the Egyptians to their knees, so to speak—so that, after they refused to allow the enslaved Jews to leave, they would beg them to exit their country.
The so-called democratic election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi was intended, amongst other things, to abrogate the 34-year-old peace between Israel and Egypt. The idea was for the cool peace between the two countries to be replaced by a heated-up dangerous border, particularly at the edge of the Sinai Desert, where Egyptians agitating for terror would be able to fire missiles into the otherwise sleepy and peaceful beach resort city of Eilat. And during the yearlong Morsi reign, that was indeed what he allowed to happen several times. The prospects for the future were not good. That was until the military saw that the Brotherhood was bent on imposing strict religious law in what had been a secular state.
And that was a similar problem at the time that Hashem sent Moshe Rabbeinu to lead the ancient Hebrews out of Egypt. The Egyptians were cool, detached, and indifferent to the idea of a G‑d who created and runs the world. And that’s why some explain that the first of the plagues was blood. The Egyptians worshipped the Nile River, which was the source of their once booming economy. The Nile waters were as all waters are—wet and cool. Blood that courses through one’s body is hot. The message to the uncaring and uninterested ancient Egyptians was to start showing some passion and get serious about the matters at hand.
Of course you know the rest of the story about Pharaoh’s stubbornness and his refusal to allow the Israelites to leave his country ostensibly to worship G‑d in the Sinai Desert. A few thousand years later, Egypt is in the throes of violence and there is once again blood just about everywhere.
And then there was the tenth plague, which was the striking and killing of all the firstborn children in every Egyptian family. It was the final blow of the Divine punishment administered by G‑d as payment to the Egyptians for being overzealous in the fashion that they tortured their indigenous Jews. The Torah commentators tell us that when the firstborn heard that they were to be targeted, there was an uprising, with all the firstborns banding together to fight Pharaoh’s army. So great was the spectacle of the Egyptians rising up against one another and inflicting so much damage upon each other that the event went down in history as Shabbos HaGadol—the Great Shabbos.
That’s what we have before our very eyes today—the daily exercise of Egyptians killing one another in astounding numbers, with no end in sight.
In this week’s Torah portion of Ki Savo, Moshe continues his exhortation of the Jewish people, urging them to be faithful to G‑d and beseeching them to understand that their destiny is to be aligned with G‑dliness. So how does the message of this parashah impact upon these contemporary issues and how does it interface with all the Egyptian problems and the sway these events have on Israel and the Jewish people?
Part of the answer to this question is that ancient Egypt contrasted and defined who the Jewish people were prior to the giving of the Torah at Sinai. And that is the meaning of Egypt for the Jewish people. It is the place that reminds us of a time in our history that some say transcended Torah and applies to all Jews everywhere, regardless of their commitment to Torah and mitzvos, just like the original Jews breaking their way out of Mitzrayim: At the time of the Exodus, we were one nation.
So what is it that is bugging Egypt today? What exactly is plaguing them? v
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.