My parents are visiting the Crunch family in Israel for a rare visit (their second in 4½ years). Today, I took my dad to the new, improved Israel Museum, where we dodged the raindrops to see the Second Temple model, strolled through the Shrine of the Book, and visited the Jewish Life wing (especially to see the shul interiors brought from Italy, Germany, India, and Suriname) and the ancient artifacts in the Archeology wing.
As we looked at the small figurines, jewelry, and other objets d’art of ancient Egypt, I thought about how some of these precious, astonishingly beautiful things might have been made during the times when Bnei Yisrael were slaves in Egypt. And that gets me thinking about Pesach.
Pesach is my favorite holiday. It always gets me thinking about how we Jews came together again after years of slavery and became a nation. Yes, most stayed behind in Egypt, and yes, life was difficult for decades after the Exodus. And yes, today it’s a hassle, and yes, a lot of people go ballistic over it. (I have heard of some who eat treif year round and then won’t eat in anyone else’s house during Pesach because they’re not kosher enough. Weird.) But I love cleaning and putting away the stuff I use all year and thinking of ways to simplify, simplify, simplify what I eat for a week. I spend less time thinking about food in general, and more time sitting around the table talking to my kids who are on vacation. We sleep a little later, go on family trips (including to the beach, where we can get kosher le’Pesach ice cream), slurp fruit juice pops, and enjoy the spring weather. Some people think that for all the work that goes into preparing, Pesach should last a month. (I’m still happy with a week.) It’s not a celebration of freedom only in name; the Cap’n takes off from work for the week and we actually celebrate our freedom from the grind of the work week, the school week, my cooking/cleaning/child-herding week, and take each day as it comes.
After seeing the magnificent artistry, craftsmanship, and sophisticated technology that went into creating these cast bronze figures, jewelry and such, I look at what has become of the Egyptians and the Jews since they were created thousands of years ago. The Egyptians and their great (though undoubtedly barbaric) society were eventually overrun by Arab colonizers. (Egyptian Copts are descended from the pharaohs, but as you can see from this article, they are coming under vicious attack by Muslims and are little better off than the Jews were before they fled Egypt in the 1940s and 1950s.) They lost their language, their culture, their religion, and their race itself was mostly subsumed by Arab settlers. Their country went from being wealthy and bounteous to being just another two-bit oppressive Muslim state with some pretty fabulous (if frequently ransacked) ruins from earlier times. The Jews who left Egypt wandered in the desert for years, eventually built their own society which suffered from internal strife and external conquest, but rebuilt itself twice now (after the return from Babylon and in the creation of the modern State) and has endured. Our people are (more or less) the same people we were thousands of years ago, with the same language (updated, of course), the same texts, and the same mission. As Egypt has groaned under the oppressive regimes of dictators, Israel has created a flourishing (if flawed) democracy. As the Arab world (including Egypt) has contributed little to the betterment of civilization in hundreds of years (unless you count the assassin and the suicide bomber as contributions), Israel’s achievements in science, medicine, and communications technology are more than amply documented in email forwards which circulate the globe constantly. Egypt gave us papyrus; Israel has published 6,866 books in a year (2006), while Egypt published 2,215 (1995) (source).
Israelis know what it is to be free: free to speak, to assemble, to practice your religion, to disagree with your government. For Egyptians, as for most Middle Eastern Muslims, freedom is simply the opposite of slavery.
So have Israelis created the legacy of breathtaking art that the Egyptians did those thousands of years ago? Generally not. But we did give the world the Torah, the commandments (both the 613 and the Seven Noahide Commandments), the belief in one God, the definition of true justice, and a sense that all humans are created equal (i.e. in the image of God). When all is said and done, our gift is much more beautiful, and more enduring.