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Parshas Beshalach

The Law of No Return
Rabbi Yosef Levinson

The Rambam (Hilchas Melachim 5:7) rules that one may reside anywhere in the world except Egypt. A Jew can live anywhere he wishes, even the Far East where there may be questions concerning the dateline which affect the observance of Shabbos and Yamim Tovim. One may establish a home near the North Pole where there is a problem in defining day and night, thus affecting one's ability to pinpoint the correct time for reciting the daily prayers and observing Shabbos. However, these are not strong enough grounds to prohibit establishing one's domicile in these places. The only land where one may not reside is Egypt.

The Sefer Hachinuch (Mitzva 500) explains that the reason for this ban is that the Egyptians are evil and sinful. Hashem took us out from there midst for our benefit so that we may walk in the ways of truth. Therefore He prescribed that we never return there in order that we should not be influenced by their heretical beliefs and attitudes or corrupted by their detestable deeds.

The Torah repeats this prohibition no less than three times - the first in this week's Parsha. When the Bnei Yisrael saw Pharaoh and the Egyptians approaching, they became very frightened. Moshe said to them: "Do not fear! Stand fast and see the salvation of Hashem which He will perform for you today; for as you have seen Mitzrayim today, you will never see them again!" (Shemos 14:13). Although this passuk appears as part of the narrative, Moshe was re-assuring the nation of Hashem that it would never have to fear the Egyptians again. Nevertheless there is a tradition that this verse contains a commandment as well (Sefer Hachinuch, ibid; see Ha'Emek Davar).

How does the passuk allude to this prohibition and why didn't the Torah clearly state that we may not return to Mitzrayim? The purpose of the exodus from Egypt and indeed the reason we merited to be redeemed was in order that we should stand before Har Sinai to receive the Torah. "For they are My servants whom I have taken out of Egypt." (Vayikra 25:42; see Shemos 3:12 with Rashi). As the super-power of the era, Egypt was the dominant culture and their influence was felt the world over. Living in Egypt for 210 years affected the Jews. They felt a strong bond with Egyptian ideology and culture, sinking to the forty-ninth level of tuma, impurity. If any remnant of power had remained with the Egyptian nation, the purpose of the Geula, redemption, namely that the Bnei Yisrael become a kingdom of princes and a holy nation, would have an been impossible goal to achieve. Eretz Yisrael is literally in Egypt's backyard, and we would have continued to be influenced by them.

This was Moshe's reassurance to the Bnei Yisrael. You need not fear the Egyptians now, and furthermore, Hashem will crush them to such an extent that they will no longer be a force to be reckoned with. After their devastating defeat, the Egyptians were not heard from for 500 years. In this way the Jewish people were allowed to flourish as a Torah nation. (Rabbi Avigdor Miller zt'l). This is how we derive the prohibition of returning to Mitzrayim from this passuk. If Hashem promised the complete destruction of Egypt so that their practices and beliefs would not filter into Eretz Yisrael, surely we should not return to this despicable land where we would undoubtedly be susceptible to the Egyptian way of life. Written in this way, the Torah is calling attention to the severity of this sin. Our future as Hashem's holy nation is dependent on our avoiding Egypt. The Gemara (Sukka 51b) records that the large Jewish community of Alexandria was destroyed for transgressing this one prohibition, although they were otherwise steadfast in their adherence to Torah.

There is another reason for this mitzva. It is forbidden for a king to acquire a multitude of horses for fear that he will resort to the superior horse breeders of Egypt to purchase more stock for the royal stables . (Devarim 17). The Ramban questions this restriction. The Talmud Yerushalmi (Sanhedrin 10:8) permits travel to Egypt for business and commerce. The Maharal (Gur Aryeh) offers that while one is permitted to conduct ordinary business dealings with the Egyptians to purchase horses, it is different for the king. The Torah forbids us to reside in Egypt because by living there we become dependent on the Egyptians. Similarly one who relies on a large standing army for his national security becomes dependent on the Egyptians to supply his troops with fine horses. If they refuse to export horses to him, he is beaten. In the same vein, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes that dating back to the times of Avraham Avinu, the Jewish people were forced to leave Eretz Yisrael in times of famine and take refuge in Egypt for sustenance. Yitzchak almost went down to Egypt, however, Hashem forbade him to go. Yaakov's sons travelled to Egypt more than once to purchase food, eventually leading to the settlement of Bnei Yisrael in Mitzrayim. Egypt's agricultural wealth gave her a superiority which in turn gave the impression that Eretz Yisrael was dependent on Mitzrayim.

However Hashem promised the Bnei Yisrael a bountiful country, a land flowing with milk and honey. You will never see the Egyptians again! Never again will you need to leave Eretz Yisrael for Egypt to supply the nation; Eretz Yisrael will be self-sufficient. (In this context, Rav Hirsch explains that the prohibition against returning to Egypt only applies when the Jewish people have authority over Eretz Yisrael. After we were exiled from the land, it was permissible to reside there, as did many Jewish communities over the centuries. (See Ritva Yoma 38a))

Hashem's promise is not only the source of the prohibition, but its reason as well. By returning to Egypt we are degrading Eretz Yisrael and belittling Hashem's promise to us. We are showing a lack of appreciation for Hashem's kindness and we are giving the impression that (Heaven forbid) Hashem cannot fulfil His promise of providing for us in our own land. As the Ibn Ezra says, returning to Mitzrayim is a gross chillul Hashem (desecration of Hashem's Name).

Even though the mores and beliefs of western society do not compare to the decadence of Mitzrayim, there is still much for us to avoid. It is almost impossible not to be affected by our environment. Awareness of this is the first step we can take in limiting the harmful affects. We must also find positive influences for us and our children. Until then we await the day when we are no longer dependent on the nations of the world and "It shall be on that day that a great shofar will be blown and those lost in the land of Asher and those cast away in the land of Egypt will come and prostate themselves to Hashem on the holy mountain, in Yerushalayim." (Yishayahu 27:13).

Daf Hashavua Kollel Beth HaTalmud Copyright (c) 2001 by Rabbi Yosef Levinson

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