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Why we should shun Egypt and Canaan



As the Jewish nation camps in the wilderness linking the land of the Pharaohs and the promised land, they are warned not to emulate the behaviour of their place of origin or that of their destination. The verse, in this week’s Torah reading, instructs them, “Like the practice of the land of Egypt, in which you dwelled, you shall not do, and like the practice of the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you, you shall not do, and you shall not follow their statutes.” (Lev. 18,3).

Literally, the instruction is to refrain from the notoriously decadent and immoral conduct of both nations. It remains as pertinent now as it was then. The ways of these two lands also refer to common pitfalls in our lives.

Canaan, the exciting new destination ahead, is the symbol of our constant search for innovation. Too often, we become impatient with the status quo, and seek novelty for the sake of originality not necessarily improvement. The allure of newness and freshness in its own right draws us to abandon the tried and tested ways, and venture into uncharted territory. In this instant-gratification 21st century, anything that doesn’t smell fresh and different is quickly dismissed as irrelevant and passé.

Egypt, the land from which we came, represents custom. This is our natural tendency to resist change, to continue doing what we have always done. An approach may have failed us in the past, but we still retreat into the safe cocoon of the habitual. It’s crucial that we reflect and look back, following traditions and rituals. South African Jewry prizes time-honoured customs, and this has held our community together through generations. At the same time, we must constantly re-evaluate whether a practice is still relevant (if it ever was), or is actually standing in the way of progress.

Generally, the younger generation restlessly head for the greener pastures down the road less travelled. Older folk tend to shelter in the sanctuary of convention. The Torah teaches us to shun both Egypt and Canaan, to critically analyse why we are refusing to change our ways, and why we are often in such a hurry to abandon the old ways for the new.

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