Shai Azoulay/Meislin Projects
Shai Azoulay/Meislin Projects
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The Jews Who Didn’t Leave Egypt

A lesson from the past about choosing freedom over servitude

Alana Newhouse
April 14, 2022
Shai Azoulay/Meislin Projects
Shai Azoulay/Meislin Projects

This weekend, millions of people will sit around Seder tables and memorialize the exodus of the Jews from Egypt.

Guided by the Haggadah, or Passover text—one of the most popular Jewish books ever written—Seder participants are led along in a series of prayers, texts, and activities. We talk and talk and talk about the miracle of liberation; we parse the details of its unfolding, enumerating the many miracles involved; we go over whether we are supposed to commemorate the blessing of freedom only in this life or also in the next one; we assert in words and song the gratitude we feel for being the lucky descendants of those who escaped from slavery.

One thing we do not generally discuss, however, are the Jews who didn’t leave.

“Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt,’” states Exodus 13:17. But it is in the next sentence that a mystery emerges: “So God led the people round about, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds. Now the Israelites went up chamushim out of the land of Egypt.”

Wait—what? The Jews went out of Egypt how? What does “chamushim” mean? It is generally translated as “armed,” but nearly all commentaries note that its definition is, in fact, uncertain.

Into this breach arrives the legendary medieval Torah commentator Rashi, with a startling assertion. After acknowledging the “armed” option, Rashi offers, with casual sangfroid, another idea: That “chamushim” relates to the Hebrew word for five, and the text should be understood to be saying that only one-fifth of the Jewish people chose to leave Egypt.

What happened to those who stayed? Nothing good. “There were among Israel of that generation wicked individuals who did not wish to depart Egypt and they died during the three days of gloom,” Rashi continues.

Rashi’s contemporary, Ibn Ezra, was positively outraged by this interpretation, calling it “a sick evil.” But Shemot Rabbah finds Rashi’s explanation perfectly reasonable, and even adds to it: “There were sinners among the Jews who had Egyptian patrons, and they had wealth and honor there, [so] they didn’t want to leave.” In other words, they liked the good life in Egypt.

This, of course, flies in the face of what is commonly understood to be the definition of slavery. Jews who stayed behind were not inexplicably choosing a life of torture; they simply did not want to give up on the comforts of the life they knew. In the later words of Rav Yehuda Henkin, they were “disinclined to trade flesh-pots for freedom.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about these Jews lately.

I think about them when people refuse to accept that beloved blue-chip organizations—the ACLU, the ADL, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International—no longer fight for their own founding values.

I think about them when I talk to people who straight-facedly cite The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, or other formerly great outlets as authoritative sources of news.

I think about them when friends text me openly antisemitic Instagram posts from artists they admire, or internal threads from storied museums in which Jews or Israel or America are maligned as evil, asking how they can “educate” these people.

I think about them when I meet people who can’t imagine—literally cannot make their brains consider—their child (or mine!) not going to a prestigious American college or university.

I thought about them when I watched as Ukrainian flags went up in a matter of hours in all of my friends’ social media profiles, the latest in a collection of pins for our lapels—the parentheses around Jewish names, #MeToo, #TimesUp, #BLM, #TransRightsAreHumanRights, #MaskUp, and more.

I think of them when I see people’s language change on a dime, and in lockstep: systemic racism, gaslighting, victim-blaming, platforming, deplatforming. And when I see people with previously solid moral compasses lose their footing in the face of this or that hysteria du jour—suddenly incapable of saying clearly “this is wrong” (or “this isn’t wrong”), regardless of how emotionally it is positioned by a collectivist swarm.

I think about these people, about the moral imagination needed to take risks, to leave old worlds and build new ones; about the confidence required to believe that it is you who makes a given institution or cause or idea legitimate and special, and not the other way around; about the bravery and faith needed to withstand the loneliness of the desert of outsiderness before getting to the Israel of a new life. I think about all of this, and suddenly Rashi’s insight becomes less mysterious.

In 2017, I was one of the few among my friends who didn’t attend the Women’s March. I recognized the legitimacy and even urgency of the cause, but I had concerns about the movement and its leaders. When I asked questions or noted inconsistencies, clear answers were never forthcoming. Instead, my impulse to examine and weigh evidence was suddenly considered suspect. I was sneered at, if not openly attacked: Was I against empowering women? Against the elevation of women of color? In favor of rape?

Once the answers were finally uncovered—showing the march to have been mired in financial mismanagement, to say nothing of the antisemitism espoused by its founders—some of the same people who questioned my allegiance to my own sex, or my politics, or whatever else they suspected, confessed to being shocked that they were putting money in Louis Farrakhan’s pockets while funding an organization that badly damaged the cause they meant to support.

In the summer of 2020, Jewish groups tripped over each other to issue press releases supporting Black Lives Matter—the movement, not the idea. Every Jew of goodwill agreed that nothing could be more important than adopting this slogan wholesale, painting it on walls, adding it to websites, stamping it on children’s clothing, putting it on lawn signs and, of course, writing out large checks from personal and communal accounts, immediately. The fact that the checks hadn’t been written yesterday, or years ago, was already a scandal.

When well-meaning people inside of communal life asked whether those Jewish leaders knew anything about the organization that would be cashing these checks, the questioners were reflexively branded as racist enemies of progress. I believe that many of the people who said these things sincerely felt, in the moment, like they were on the right side of history, and that those asking questions were not. But now that the truth has come to light—with one BLM organizer holding forth about how charity transparency laws make her feel unsafe—I wonder if they will ever be granted apologies.

When Tablet defended the Satmar community’s response to draconian COVID policies, including their insistence on sending their children to school or their commonsense inquiry into why one would close playgrounds—forcing people to stay indoors, often in close quarters, during an airborne pandemic—our writers were called medieval science-deniers. When people asked questions about mask mandates and vaccine passports, they were smeared as anti-vaxxers and right-wingers—even when they were obviously nothing of the sort.

In an age of uncertainty, it feels good to cast the habit of questioning aside and embrace the idea that the cautious weighing of evidence is unnecessary. Your side walks in light. The other side dwells in darkness. And indeed, there is nothing wrong with fighting racism, wherever you find it. Fighting for equal rights for people of any gender, orientation, or sexual preference is good. Promoting public policies that bring safety and security, and clear air and clean water, and needed medicine and economic opportunity to more people is a noble aim. Protecting the environment is also good. There is nothing wrong with opposing Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine.

What is wrong, as I now see it, is that none of this activism results in making anyone’s lives better. The Women’s March collapsed under the weight of the very sorts of problems raised by its few early skeptics. Time’s Up has been mired in one scandal after another. Barely a year and a half after garnering an Emmy, a $5 million book deal, and an army of “Cuomosexual” fans online, the former governor of New York left office in disgrace. According to New York Magazine’s Sean Campbell, Black Lives Matter spent $6 million on a mansion for its leaders. The word “science” was used to shame those who wouldn’t fall in line and boost the profit margins of large pharmaceutical companies that had been, barely minutes before, justly infamous for lying to the public and profiteering off of illnesses that they often did little to heal—and even, as in the case of America’s recent opioid epidemic, caused.

The public campaigns that utilize these virtuous slogans on social media are political tools, wielded by people who are interested in corralling the public toward a variety of unrelated ends—including their own self-enrichment. If you’re wondering whether or not your favored cause is a radical effort to help those who are genuinely in need or powerless, there’s an easy way to find out:

Ask yourself why BlackRock—a corporation making it impossible for middle-class Americans to own homes—is draping itself in the language of social justice. Ask yourself why, in fact, so many corporations now all support the same roster of causes. Ask yourself how all channels of discourse in America suddenly flow in the same direction, making local and institutional and communal distinctions that were once defining seem vanishingly trivial. Why do all universities have the same politics and curricula and trigger warnings and quotas? Why must all hospitals and schools have them too? At what point does one accept that all of these causes and crises are related, that the closeness of their relationship to each other is quite strange?

A new and decadent power center has been built, made up of the federal government and a constellation of corporations and nonprofits that operate as connected wings of the same sprawling complex. The people who control the key platforms and networks are aggregating power to themselves at the expense of everyone else. These people and the institutions they dominate are not interested in social justice, or any other kind of justice, except to the extent that they can be used as shields. They festoon their corporate headquarters with slogans about women’s rights, Black rights, and trans rights while hoovering up millions of jobs and billions of dollars that once belonged to small- and medium-sized American businesses and shipping it all to China. Through their networks of foundations and NGOs, they have emptied out America’s free press and turned most of it into a quasi-governmental political propaganda apparatus that is remarkably empty of meaningful information about how power works in America and why the quality of so many people’s lives keeps getting worse.

Different people have different words for this new monolithic reality, but everyone who isn’t either naive or craven knows that it exists. I envision it as a pyramid—one that contains the sum total of every slogan and brand name and source of prestige, acting and speaking in unison. To live in its shadow, to take one’s moral or political or social cues from the pyramid’s overseers, is not simply an act of idol worship; it’s a form of servitude.

For American Jews, our addiction to being insiders is especially dangerous at this moment, because it means siding with people who don’t like Jews very much, and in some cases actively wish us harm. But it’s more than that, for everyone: When status becomes the reward for serving those in power, who in turn reduce the rest of the population to forms of abject powerlessness, then seeking it out becomes toxic. And it’s not simply that we shouldn’t be participating in this system; it’s that we—especially those of us who care about the less fortunate, who want to see more justice in the world, who want more safety and health and prosperity for greater numbers of people—should be leading the charge out of this Egypt, helping to build the institutions and communities and companies and cultural organizations of a new and better future.

Because if there is the pyramid, there is also a space emerging outside of it—a space increasingly populated by people who want to take back their right to question, who want to experiment and quarrel and even get things wrong sometimes but to do so according to their own consciences, and who are willing to sacrifice comfort and prestige for that freedom. The people who dwell here are not part of any political faction or ideological school—or rather, they are from all of them. Indeed, the operative distinction in the near term in American politics will not be between left and right, but between insider and outsider; between those incapable of leaving their fleshpots and those who would willingly face uncertainty and risk for the chance at a better world. Between the majority that stays and is swallowed up by history, and the minority that leaves and makes the future.

Whoever you are, if you are sitting around a Seder table this weekend, your ancestors were among those who opted not to serve the people who built the pyramids. They were people who chose to pursue the spark of the divine that makes us human, even if it meant being pursued by Pharaoh’s chariots and then enduring 40 years of uncertainty wandering in the desert. If it’s no surprise that most Jews preferred to stay in Egypt, this Passover let us celebrate the ones who left—by following their example.

Alana Newhouse is the editor-in-chief of Tablet Magazine.