"Pharaoh's Army Engulfed by the Red Sea" by Frederick Arthur Bridgman, 1900
"Pharaoh's Army Engulfed by the Red Sea" by Frederick Arthur Bridgman, 1900

Post-seder postscript: Why not hate the Egyptians?

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On a very superficial level, the story of Passover is one of the classic Jewish stories of, “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat!” Fortunately, in our day, vast numbers of Jews are diving more deeply into the story of the Exodus from Egypt, in a way that reveals the limitations of that banal (though funny) reading.

Without question, the Egyptians oppressed us on many levels. And so it would have been entirely unsurprising if the Torah had taught us that we should cultivate hatred for the Egyptians throughout the ages.

In fact, the Torah explicitly teaches that we are not to loathe the Egyptians: “Do not abhor the Egyptians, for you were strangers in their land.” (Deuteronomy 23:8)

What? Do not abhor the Egyptians, for they were generous to you?! Sure enough, Rashi says, as if anticipating our incredulity, “Even though they threw your male babies into the river, they were a shelter to you at a time of distress [famine].”

This is asking of Jews throughout the ages to have an almost superhuman level of gratitude and appreciation. Be grateful to the Egyptians, for they provided us food — before they turned us into slaves and oppressed us for 400 years?

This is even more perplexing when we recall that we are, in fact, commanded to relate to three nations as enemies, based on their harmful behavior toward us.

The Torah tells us to hold two “enemy” nations, Ammon and Moav (Deut. 23:4-7) permanently outside the community of Israel, because these two peoples had intended to do us harm at one point in history.

And of course, we are told to “blot out the memory of Amalek,” the arch-enemy of the Israelite people. “Remember what Amalek did to you on your way out of Egypt, when they came upon you on the road and attacked the weak at your rear, when you were famished and weary, not fearing God. … Therefore … blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget.” (Deut. 25:17-19)

Obviously, this commandment has resonated profoundly with the Jewish people throughout history. The commandment not to forget Amalek has become the paradigm for the wicked despot who has sought to destroy us throughout the generations.

For many contemporary Jews, the commandment not to forget (“Never Again”) is among the most compelling of all Jewish communal imperatives.

But if we look at Rashi’s commentary on the verses about Amalek, we find that he reads this mitzvah in a most counter-intuitive way. Stunningly, he says that Amalek attacked the Israelites at the rear of the camp at a time when the Israelites themselves were dishonest in their use of weights and measures. He continues that the Israelites at the rear became separated from the rest of the camp by the cloud, and that without the support of the community, they became lost in sin, leaving them vulnerable to attack from behind.

Rashi goes so far as to suggest that the phrase “not fearing God” in verse 18 above refers not to the Amalekite attackers but to the Israelites themselves. His core understanding of the commandment to remember Amalek is not to rehearse the angry memory, not to hate or blame or demonize Amalek, for they were only successful, in his view, because of our own moral and spiritual failings!

According to this reading, the Torah is suggesting that our primary work is not to fight or hate those who may seek to harm us.

Rather, the primary mitzvah is to be vigilant about the state of our own souls, constantly seeking to purify our own inner lives, cleansing our hearts of needless hate, small-mindedness and self-importance, or anything that may obstruct our connection to God.

One Hasidic commentator, Rebbe Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, made this line of reasoning even clearer when he wrote: “Not only are Jews commanded to wipe out Amalek, . . . but each Jew has to wipe out that negative part that is called Amalek hidden in his or her heart.” (Kedushat Levi, drash for Purim)

Obviously, it is imperative that we defend ourselves against real threats, of which there are many in our world today.

But we are exhorted, whenever possible, to open ourselves to the healing power of time, praying and working to allow the wounds, fears and angers of the past to recede. This strain of the tradition insists that God’s ultimate commandment for the Jewish people is not only to survive, though we must surely do that, but to serve God in the world, by continually working to cleanse our own hearts of all that is less than godly.

Against this background, we can understand why we were taught not to hate the Egyptians.

The Torah and subsequent Jewish tradition did not want the moral of the founding story of the Israelite/Jewish people to be one of hatred, even against those who have threatened us. While we must obviously defend ourselves against harm, the ultimate command of the tradition is to work on our own souls, to develop within us and around us the very opposite of what Egypt represented.

Despite the dizzying array of problems in the world, may this Passover strengthen our determination to live out the moral of the Exodus story: to be holy people, to stand up in opposition to all oppression and to defend all those in need.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at rabbiamyeilberg.com.