The “big” decision in Judaism is not, as in other religions, whether we choose to give up our free will and submit to G-d’s will (as in Islam), or whether should separate ourselves from pleasure (as with much of classical Christianity), or even whether we should foreswear the physical world for spiritualism (as in many Eastern traditions).
The underlying question for all Jews throughout all of our history has always been whether we choose to grow or not. And by “grow” I mean taking our corporeal existence, and aiming upward, always seeking to improve. We ideally aim to complete the creation of the world by healing the divisions that G-d created when he separated the waters above and below.
The alternative to growth is to rest, to take what the earth gives us, to choose the path of comfortable physical pleasures instead of those that come from challenging relationships.
Avraham, the first Jew, is the first to face this challenge. He has Sarah, a challenging and demanding wife, an “in-your-face” kind of spouse who simply does not leave Avraham alone. As the first Jewish marriage, Avraham’s relationship with Sarah forms the archetype for the relationship between man and G-d: just like Sarah, G-d pushes and demands and never stops insisting. And after G-d’s ultimate demand – that of the sacrifice of Isaac – Avraham ends his relationship with Sarah and with G-d. He never talks with G-d again.
Avraham, after all, has a backup: Hagar, the embodiment of Egypt. Hagar who represents easy and compliant woman-flesh, able to have children with ease, and a woman who never once contradicts her master. Avraham initially married Sarah – but once Sarah dies, Avraham “retires” to an Egyptian life, a life of comfort and easy happiness. And the Torah takes pains to tell us that he died a very content man. Avraham does his time with Sarah and with G-d, and then he enjoys the relief of just living the easy life.
Avraham is the first to be presented with this choice, but the question arises for each of us, every day of our conscious lives. Every year on Pesach we remove the chametz, the contentment, of Egypt from our homes. Chametz, after all, is what results from leaving water and flour alone together, letting nature run its course. And Egypt was paradise: the Nile provided a steady and unending source of food with only a bare minimum of human effort (the Torah tells us about “the land of Egypt, from where you came out, where you sowed your seed, and watered it with your foot, as a garden of vegetables” (Deut. 11:9). The Nile’s water, when left alone with passive flour (mankind) enabled both bread and beer. In Egypt, sustenance came from below: it was so comfortable that one never needed to look for spiritualism, for a connection to G-d.
Joseph Cox points out that at the beginning of Exodus there is a phrase that everyone mistranslates (mistranslations are the unmined gold of Torah exegesis):
And the people of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and became exceedingly mighty; and the land was filled with them. (Ex. 1:7)
But the phrase “the land was filled with them,” when read grammatically, actually means “the land filled them.” The difference is huge. The Jewish people became so much a part of the land of Egypt, that they absorbed the land into themselves. They ceased to have any spiritual aspirations; they settled as Egyptians. It is why, when the people were enslaved and murdered and forced to work hard to build unnecessary buildings, that they complained only about the work. “This is Egypt!” one can imagine a Jew saying. “We don’t need to work hard!” A proper Egyptian is indolent, because that is all the land requires one to be in order to thrive.
We truly had made Egyptian life part of ourselves. Joseph Cox adds that the same Ex. 1:7 tells us that the Jews “were fruitful, teemed, increased, and became strong” – but the word “teemed” (yishretzu) is the same word used to describe all manners of lizards and bugs, what in the vernacular we might call “creepy-crawlies”. These animals are not kosher because they literally, just like the Jewish people in Egypt, fill themselves with the land. Creepy-crawlies are fully part of the earth, with no split hooves that can allow them to be partially elevated from the earth’s surface. The Torah describes the Jewish people with words previously reserved for cockroaches!
This is, after all, the natural result of choosing the easy, comfortable life – the life of ease, and reliance on nature’s bounty. The Egyptian life lacked the challenging and difficult relationship with G-d. Being a slave in Egypt may have been hard because of the workload, but emotionally it was very easy, indeed. The Nile River guarantees one’s food supply: there is absolutely no insecurity about where our next meal is coming from. In a comfortable life, there is no requirement to change ourselves, to grow as individuals and as people. When we live in tune with nature, we never need to look up for our salvation.
But looking up is precisely what G-d demands from the Jewish people. From his first command to Avraham “Lech lecha”, to instructing Avraham to look up at the stars, until the Exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Torah, and the present day, G-d never stops pushing us, never stops being Sarah in our national marriage. Sure, we can walk away and choose Hagar and Egypt if we want to. It means choosing to fill our lives with nature instead of technology, making our lives every bit as unimportant in the grand scheme of things as those of cockroaches.
This, unfortunately, describes most of humanity. Most people live as animals, with no spiritual growth, seeking only material comforts and pleasures. By the billions, most people live as nothing more than statistics, shockingly easy to model as unthinking and predictable economic and sociological masses. We could slip into that life. But we Jews resist statistical prediction; we refuse to cripple our aspirations, to live as a nation just like any other. Because when we choose to grow, we no longer are bound to the siren call of the Egyptian life. We can, and do, elevate ourselves from the land, and live as physical beings with a spiritual connection to our G-d. And when we do that, we create new things, we improve ourselves and the world around us. In a word: we grow.