2.5. Mother Egypt and Father Babylon

We have already noted[1] that the Jewish people, in its very structure and origins, is significantly different from ordinary peoples.

Among the peoples of the world there is a concept of “motherland,” which means that a country is seen as giving birth to its inhabitants, as being a parent to them. This idea is quite accurate for ordinary peoples, whose national consciousness takes form as a feature of their historical development. But it often happens that different components of a single ethnos take up residence in different geographical states, with the result that after a few centuries they become entirely different nations. And vice versa: If different clans live in the same country, and their common history progressively unites them, after a few hundred years they will become a single people (the Gauls, Franks, and Provençal in France are an example of this). In other words, nations are formed in the course of the history of states. A country really does “gives birth” to its people.

But in Jewish culture, the relationship of the nation to its state is completely different. In Jewish tradition, the Land of Israel is not the mother of the Jewish people at all, but their wife, and in the course of their history, the Jewish people will “marry” the Land of Israel. But as for their birth, the Jewish nation is born in a completely different place – in Egypt.

The history of the Jews in Egypt and their Exodus from there parallels the process of human conception and birth. When Jacob and his family leave Laban’s home in Babylon and later come to Egypt, a “conception” occurs. And when the nation grows and develops in Egypt, we can call that the “pregnancy.” When the time for the Exodus arrives, the throes of “labor” begin – the Ten Plagues that smote the Egyptians. Finally, the sea parted – “the water broke.” And the nation was born.

At the next stage of human development, the child is sent off to school to study – the Jewish people go to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. Soon it is time to marry – the “bride” is the Land of Israel. But the Jewish people were still too young at that time – they were afraid of marriage (this does happen to young people, as we know), and were not yet ready to take on conquering the Land. The future “groom” was therefore allowed to continue his “studies” for another forty years of wanderings through the wilderness, which is plenty of time to “grow up.” Finally, he is ready for “marriage” – he enters the Land of Israel and conquers it. The “marriage” to his beloved bride (the Land of Israel) is finally consummated.

Thus, the “marriage” of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel is the creation of the Jewish state, and the “child” born to them is the Messiah, the king of the Jewish state, under whose guidance the Divine light spreads to all mankind, as the prophet Isaiah says: “For instruction shall come forth from Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (Isa. 2:3). God’s instruction and word will then be coming forth not for the Jewish people, who have already received all of that much earlier, at Sinai, at the onset of their “studies.” Rather, Isaiah means that the Divine word will come forth for all humanity. And indeed, Divine Revelation came to the entire world (and in the future will likewise come) only from Zion; that is, from the Jewish state that has its capital in Jerusalem.

According to the Midrash, when God gave the Torah on Mount Sinai, He was prepared to teach it to all the nations, but they refused. Only the Jews agreed to accept the Torah and, as things turned out, only they were capable doing so[2]. The Torah given at Sinai is the Torah descended from Heaven. Only the Jewish people are able to “receive the Divine Word from Heaven.” But the Jewish people receive the Torah not only for themselves, but for the entire world. They arrive in the land of Israel and possess it for the purpose of transmitting the Divine Teachings to all of humanity.

In the course of Jewish history in the Land of Israel, which is the story of the “marriage” of the Jewish people to their Land, the Torah is transformed into the Tanakh, and God’s Heavenly teachings are transformed into their more earthly equivalent, something that all of humanity can understand. And then “instruction shall come forth from Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”

Through the concept of the “marriage” of the Jewish people and their Land one can gain a unique understanding of the special nature of the connection between the Jews and the Land of Israel. A people that relocates to a different country will inevitably, after some time, forget its former “historical homeland.” French-Canadians, for example, have no interest in returning to France, notwithstanding that they have not lost their appreciation of French as a language. And so it is with any other nation.

This is similar to how a child grows up and leaves his mother – he takes leave of her. He keeps in touch with her, writes her letters, and sometimes even comes back to visit, but he lives separately and independently, and has no plan to return in any real sense.

The Jewish people, however, in leaving their country have left not their mother but their wife. Or, more precisely, when the Jewish people began to behave badly, the Land of Israel booted them out. But when the Jewish people repented and mended their ways, she willingly accepted them back[3].

All the time the Jewish people were in exile, the Land did not “marry” anyone else. For almost the entire period of the Jewish exile, the Land of Israel was merely the abandoned province of other states, not an independent entity. No other people could come into existence on that territory, and those states that did arise in the Land of Israel were ephemeral and short-lived. The return of the Jewish people to their Land today is therefore a renewal of “marriage,” in order to give birth to the Mashiach, to bring the Messianic light to the world. This is the purpose for which the current State of Israel was created. In times to come the world will begin to understand this.

Returning to the story of the birth of the Jewish people, which is the subject of our discussion in this Book of Exodus, we note that Egypt was the mother of the Jewish people, and its father was Babylon. In this sense, Jacob’s departure with his family from Babylon is the inception of the nation’s “birth” from the father’s point of view, the “insemination.” Later on, Jacob and his family move from Babylon to Egypt, and there the “conception” takes place.

Babylon and Egypt are special countries. As already noted, these two countries are mentioned in the Book of Genesis as an integral part of the Creation story. Babylon and Egypt are fed by the rivers that flow through the Garden of Eden; mankind’s primordial spirituality is divided between them.

In the Jewish view, the unification of these two spiritualities, the Egyptian and the Babylonian, gave birth to a people, the Jews, who could transmit the Divine light to all of mankind. This is why Abraham’s origins are in Babylon. He descends to Egypt and later leaves Egypt, but he thus integrates both Babylon and Egypt on a personal level.

At the next stage, Jacob goes to Babylon, marries, begets children, creates a family, and with them leaves Babylon and later descends to Egypt – realizing communication not on an individual, but on a familial level[4]. The next level, the national level, is the Exodus and “birth” from Egypt.

Because the Jewish nation was born in Egypt, it has a certain kindred relation to Egypt. Egypt was the greatest civilization of antiquity, the most highly developed – spiritually, scientifically, and technically. It is therefore no coincidence that the Jewish nation is born there. It could not have been born in a weak country, or a country of only secondary importance.

Abraham was himself keenly aware of this point – that the Jewish nation had to be born under Egypt’s influence and retain its kindred relationship with Egypt. It is no coincidence that after arriving in the Land of Israel, Abraham went to Egypt. And later, even more compellingly, Abraham believed that Ishmael, his son from his Egyptian bondwoman Hagar[5], would become the heir to his life’s work. Before he could acknowledge that only Isaac would continue his mission, Abraham had to experience a severe personal crisis.

Although the idea that the Jewish nation had to be born through Egypt was incorrect at Abraham’s phase of Jewish history, it was in principle entirely correct. Abraham’s only mistake was his belief that it would happen with him; he committed only a tactical error. He failed to understand that first his son and grandson Isaac and Jacob had to be born, and that the latter would then go down to Egypt as a family unit, in order that a new nation, the Children of Israel, could be born from that civilization. Moses, the leader of the Exodus, clearly senses this connection of Jewish and Egyptian principles within his own personality. The story of weekly portion Shemot is centered around this fact.

[1] See Bible Dynamics commentary to Genesis, chapter 13.

[2] We will deal with this question further in our discussion of the giving of the Torah at Sinai.

[3] Physically (i.e., technically) speaking, of course, the exile was effected by the Romans, while the Jews’ return from that exile was realized through the Zionist movement. But all of that was in fact the realization of the Divine plan for the relationship of the Jewish people to their Land.

[4] For an analysis of this aspect in the narratives of the lives of Abraham and Jacob, see Bible Dynamics, commentary to Genesis, chapter 13, and §36.13.

[5] On Abraham’s connection with Egypt, see Bible Dynamics, commentary to Genesis, §16.8.


Bible Dynamics, VOL. 2. EXODUS Copyright © by Orot Yerushalaim / P. Polonsky / English translation of the Torah by the Jewish Publication Society, New JPS Translation, 1985. With sincere gratitude for the permission to use. All Rights Reserved.

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