The Israelites who stayed behind

Many historical scholars believe that at least 80 percent of the children of Israel who lived in Egypt under Pharaoh’s rule did not leave.

Illustration of the Israelites Exodus from Egypt, guided by the prophet Moses, 1907, the Providence Lithograph Company. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Illustration of the Israelites Exodus from Egypt, guided by the prophet Moses, 1907, the Providence Lithograph Company. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Dan Schnur
Dan Schnur
Dan Schnur is the U.S. politics editor for the Jewish Journal.

Many historical scholars believe that at least 80% of the children of Israel who lived in Egypt under Pharaoh’s rule stayed behind. That rather than follow Moses into the desert, most chose to remain in subjugation rather than face the unknown. That’s a much less inspiring tale than the one we tell at the seder, but as 21st-century American Jews face rising levels of anti-Semitism, there may be a useful lesson to be learned from this part of the Passover story, too.

One of the core meanings of Passover is the way we apply lessons from biblical times to the challenges we face in today’s world. Like all religious celebrations, the benefit of evoking these triumphs serves as an important reminder of how our people have overcome tremendous obstacles and how we as their descendants are capable of similar victories. Linking ourselves to the Israelites who fled Egypt allows us to share in the determination, the perseverance and the courage that guided them through the desert to the Promised Land. 

Denying ourselves leavened bread for eight days to demonstrate abstinence and sacrifice, eating maror (“bitter herbs”) to imitate the bitterness of slavery and reciting the Ten Plagues to commemorate the suffering are fairly low-impact ways of evoking past hardships that for most of us are unimaginable. But it suggests a bridge between their challenges and ours, hopefully encouraging us to be willing to confront difficult obstacles when they arise in our paths.

But what about the Jews who weren’t brave enough to leave, who didn’t have the mettle or the audacity to abandon their homes in Egypt?

There’s considerable disagreement among researchers of that period as to how many Israelites stayed behind (some believe the number was upwards of 90%, others dismiss the possibility altogether.) But for the sake of this discussion, let’s assume that only one of five Jews in Egypt decided to take the risk of trusting Moses and setting out into a dangerous wilderness in the vague hope of finding a new home for their people. That means that the overwhelming majority of the children of Israel chose a compromised but familiar existence over the potential dangers that more dramatic and assertive action might have brought.

On one hand, that’s somewhat discouraging. We like to think of the Jewish people as a unified collective who together possess the valor and character to take control of their destiny. The fact that most of them lacked the necessary conviction to stand up for themselves is not the type of uplifting story that fits neatly into the biblical narrative. But that actually makes the actions of the 20 percent who did follow Moses even more admirable. Recognizing that such heroism was not automatically distributed to an entire population but rather reflected the more unique qualities of a smaller number of Abraham’s descendants can be very valuable to us today as we consider how to confront our current challenges.

We live in a world in which we are surrounded by rising levels of anti-Semitism—and see a puzzling level of apathy towards this threat in many of our fellow Jews. This lesson from ancient Egypt should remind us not to be surprised that many 21st-century Jews have decided that the potential difficulties associated with confrontation are not worth the disruption to their otherwise comfortable lives. But if it only took a small percentage of the Israelites in Egypt to risk an imperfect but tolerable existence to regain our Promised Land, then a comparably small minority of today’s Jewish community will surely be more than sufficient to lead the effort to push back against a much less powerful group of modern-day haters. 

Instead of waiting for those in our community who are not willing to push back against bigotry, better to move forward without them. Instead of wondering why so many others are willing to suffer in silence, the rest of us have work to do.

Dan Schnur teaches political communications at UC Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. He hosts the weekly webinar “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” for the Los Angeles World Affairs Council & Town Hall.

This article first appeared in the Jewish Journal.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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