The Jews Who Didn’t Leave Egypt

A lesson from the past about choosing freedom over servitude

An article by Alana Newhouse. She basically says these kinds of people (and they are not just Jews) are still among us.


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.


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 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.


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.


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.

The article is obviously directed at American Jews, but can be applied to Christians as well. For example, if in the following, last paragraph you replace the words “Seder table” with “Easter meal” and add the word “spiritual” between the words “your” and “ancestors”, the relevance to Christians becomes clear.

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.