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Drash Mitsrayim


Drash, April 1999 By Mark Berch

The  Exodus is of such overwhelming importance that Jewish tradition says that it must be remembered every day.  Thus, it appears in the prayers at the end of the Shema, where it says that I am the God who "Ho-tzasee Es-khem may-erets Mitsrayim"; who brought you out of the land of Mitsrayim. And it's best, I think,  to use "Mitsrayim", rather than "Egypt", since "Egypt" brings to mind the modern nation of  Egypt, which is an rather different entity.  Indeed, the  suggestion that the Exodus be thought of as coming specifically from Mitsrayim is one of the reasons for this Dvar Tefila.  The word Mitsrayim appears in a number of  other places in the Shabbat service as well.   In the "Nishmas" prayer,  at the top of page 336, and in "Ezras Avosaynu" on page 350  is "me-Mitsrayim G'altahn-nu", "From Egypt you redeemed us."  It appears three times in the brief introduction to the Song of the Sea.  If A Holiday falls on Shabbat, as it did today, we say Hallel, and One of its Psalms begins "B'Tzaas Yisroel me-Mitsrayim", "When Israel left Egypt."  And there are other places too.


But what does this word mean?   The ending, the -ayim, is a dual, a plural for things that come in pairs.  Thus, yad is hand, yadayim is hands.  "Even" is stone; "ovnayim" is grindstones. "Ofan" is wheel; "ofanayim" is bicycle. The pattern here seems to follow the Egyptian, in which Ta means land. In Egyptian, the dual plural is taui, "two lands". This is precisely the word that ancient Egyptians used to refer to Egypt.   This reflects a distant historical reality.  Egypt as a political unit appears in about 3000 BCE when the Pharoah Menes combined Upper and Lower into a single Kingdom.  In Upper Egypt, or the Nile Valley, the Nile runs through a narrow valley, bounded by arid hills.  In Lower Egypt, it spreads out widely into the Nile Delta. Egypt is The Two Lands, in Egyptian, and retains the dual, the plural, form in Hebrew.

But  in Hebrew, two whats? A pair of what?  Depending on the vowels, you have a pair of metsars or metsers.  Both of these choices come from the Hebrew root tsar, meaning narrow.  The former term is a narrow straight of land or water.  The latter is a narrow path which forms a boundary between two fields, and more broadly, any boundary, and by extension, that which has boundaries.  Either strait or region would seem to fit.  The Nile Valley is very much a straight, a narrow place, and thus the word Mitsrayim could be translated as "The Two Straights."  However, Egypt is now called by Arabs as misr (or colloqually, masr).  In Arabic, this means a region or province.  That is, something that has boundaries.  Thus, in this view, Mitsrayim would be "The Two Regions."

            In Jewish thought, however, it is very much the former view that  is accepted.  Mitsrayim --- slavery --- is a strait, a narrow place.  The association of slavery with physical confinement is one that is deeply embedded in our Jewish pysche.  I'll  close with a quotation from Victor Frankl's book, "Man's Search for Meaning"  It appears in the Haggadah "A Different Night", which enlivened the Berch family Seders this year.

            "One day, a few days after the liberation, I walked through the country past flowering meadows, for miles and miles, toward the market town near the camp.  Larks rose in the sky and I could hear their joyous sound.  There was no one to be seen for miles around; there was nothing but wide earth and sky -- and then I went down on my  knees.  At that moment, there was very little I knew of myself or the world --  I had but one sentence in mind - always the same: 'I called to the Lord from  my narrow prison and God answered me in the freedom of space." [Psalm 118:5 in Hallel, which starts:"Minn-Ha-may-Tzar karasee yah"]

            How long I knelt there and repeated this sentence, memory can no longer recall.  But I know that in that day, in that hour, my new life started.  Step for step I progressed, until I again became a human being."