Aside from the Land of Israel, there is no land that plays a more significant role in the narrative of the Torah than the land of Egypt.
I was reminded of that fact recently when visiting Egypt and viewing the breathtaking monuments which adorn the land. And they are indeed magnificent and monumental almost beyond belief in their size and beauty. They have been called the wonders of the world not without reason. Even in their ruined and incomplete state they never fail to amaze. Those ancient Egyptians certainly knew how to build. Not even Herod could compete.
Egypt was the place that forged the family of Jacob into the people Israel. As the Haggada emphasizes: "Few in number" (Deuteronomy 26:5) as it is said, "Your ancestors went down to Egypt seventy persons in all; and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars of heaven" (Deut. 10:22). Abraham may have originated in Babylonia and his son and grandson may have been born in Canaan, but as a people, Israel was born and formed in Egypt. Of course the Egyptian experience was hardly a pleasant one, since what began as a lifesaving sojourn ended in the suffering of slavery.
Yet though Egypt gave us birth and nourishment, the Torah evidences ambivalence toward Egypt that is unusual. For all the suffering Israel endured there, it still owed a debt to Egypt. The Torah commands that "you shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you" (Leviticus.18:3), but when it speaks of abhorrent practices it singles out Canaan - not Egypt (Lev. 18:24-30). We were told to eradicate the Canaanites and never to allow an Ammonite or Moabite into the congregation of the Lord, but "you shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were strangers in his land. Children born to them may be admitted into the congregation of the Lord in the third generation" (Deut. 23:8-9.). This seems to be an acknowledgment that without the sojourn in Egypt, we would not have survived or become a people.
On the other hand, there is a great fear of Egypt. Isaac was told on no account to go down to Egypt (Genesis 26:2). Jacob has to be assured that he need not be afraid to go there: "Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation" (Gen. 46:3). Kings are warned, "Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, since the Lord has warned you, 'You must not go back that way again'" (Deut. 17:16). Indeed the worst punishment that can come upon Israel is to be returned to Egypt, "The Lord will send you back to Egypt in galleys, by a route which I told you you should not see again. There you will offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but none will buy" (Deut. 28:68).
Seeing those remains of Egyptian greatness, the great pyramids and tombs, the enormous statues and temples and imagining the pageantry that accompanied the Egyptian religious rites, one can understand this fear. Egypt is temptation. How easy it would be to want to join in the great pageantry of Egyptian worship. Egypt is like Cleopatra as Shakespeare portrayed her - sensual and enticing, a great seductress who ruined the virtuous Roman Antony, "You shall see in him the triple pillar of the world transform'd into a strumpet's fool." She can easily lure people away from their more austere beliefs and ways of life. Therefore she is dangerous.
A midrash expresses this well. When the Torah says that the Israelites would not listen to Moses's message of freedom "their spirits crushed because of hard work [avoda kasha]" (Exodus 6:9), Judah ben Beterah questioned how this could be. "Is there anyone who would not rejoice when hearing good news? But it was difficult for them to separate themselves from idolatry [taking the Hebrew avoda not as 'work' but avoda zara - 'idol worship']" (Mekhilta Pisha 5).
Does not every slave yearn to be free? But they were enslaved to idolatry; they were enchanted by the pagan worship and therefore did not want to leave it. Ezekiel makes the same charge (20:7-9), and seeing the glories of Egyptian idolatry, one could believe it.
Although there may have been some influence of Egyptian worship on the religion of Israel - the sanctuary, with its courtyards and its inner sanctum, the holy of holies, seems to echo the pattern of Egyptian shrines, albeit on a much smaller scale - the Torah basically went out of its way to reject Egyptian religious beliefs. The attitude toward death in Judaism, for example, seems to be a conscious rejection of Egyptian religion that was based on the glorification of the afterworld. The mummification of the body is rejected, as is the role of the priests in care of the dead. Perhaps the reluctance shown to erect a permanent sanctuary, as opposed to a portable tent, also stemmed from the remembrance of the great sanctuaries of Egypt and the worship that took place there (II Samuel 7:4-7).
In a certain way I suppose that I envy the Egyptians their monuments. It would certainly be good for Israeli tourism. But I am actually glad that we did not create them. We took a different path. They created buildings as an assurance of eternity. We, as Abraham Joshua Heschel said, created holiness in time, not in space. We invested our energy in creating a book, a written guide to life, that has outstripped those buildings in importance and influence, not a book of the dead leading us into the next world, but a book of life "whose ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace," guiding us toward goodness in this world.
The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the author of several books, the most recent being Entering Torah.