A Great Question About Great People
Speaking of “not going back to Egypt,” you’re probably thinking, “how did Jews throughout the ages, especially great, holy Rabbis, settle in Egypt when HaShem commanded us not to?!”
To understand this, let’s look at the words of Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, a.k.a. the Rambam (1138-1204), in his Mishneh Torah:
מותר לשכון בכל העולם חוץ מארץ מצרים… בשלשה מקומות הזהירה תורה שלא לשוב למצרים, שנאמר, “לא תוסיפין לשוב בדרך הזה עוד“, “לא תוסיף עוד לראותה“, “לא תוסיפו לראותם עוד עד עולם”.
It is permitted to live anywhere in the whole world, besides for the land of Egypt. In three places the Torah warns against returning [to live] in Egypt, as it says:
- “You shall not anymore return along this path [to Egypt] again (Parshas Shoftim)”;
- “You shall not anymore see [Egypt] again (here in Parshas Ki Savo);
- “You shall not anymore see them (the Egyptians) forever (Parshas Beshalach).”
Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, Chapter 5, Halacha 7
Ok. HaShem commanded us not one time… but three times not to live in Egypt.
But one problem. The Rambam moved from Spain to Fez, Morocco; spent half a year in Israel; and then lived most of his life, 40 years, in none other than EGYPT! Good question and BIG PROBLEM!
For an explanation, let’s turn to one of the greatest Mishneh Torah commentators, by the name Rabbi Dovid ibn Zimra (a.k.a. Radvaz, 1479-1573). His commentary is printed alongside the Mishneh Torah, in smaller letters.
The comments of the Radvaz to the Rambam’s words, “in three places the Torah warns against returning to live in Egypt” is quite fascinating, because he talks about his own experience in Egypt… highly unusual! The Radvaz was born in Spain (like the Rambam), moved to Israel (like the Rambam), then to Fez, Morocco (like the Rambam), and then lived 40 years in Egypt (like the Rambam), where he was the head of a Yeshivah (like the Rambam), before he moved back to Israel (not like the Rambam).
So, the very same question asked about Rambam – how he could live in Egypt – could be asked of the Radvaz.
In the words of the Radvaz:
If the Rambam writes here that living in Egypt is forbidden, how did the Rambam live there?!
We can answer that the Rambam remained in Egypt under pressure from the government, for he was the doctor of the king and high officials. I also lived in Egypt for a long time, to learn Torah and to teach it. Indeed, I established a Yeshivah there. Under such circumstances, it is permissible. Afterwards I returned to Jerusalem.
Radvaz, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, Chapter 5, Halacha 7
Bottom line? The fact of the matter is that there were a lot of Jews living in Egypt. And it was the Rambam and a few hundred years later, the Radvaz, who were there to the rescue – teaching Torah to their fellow Jews.
BTW: The Radvaz was a great Torah scholar who authored so many Torah books! Besides for his commentary on the Mishneh Torah of the Rambam and many other important Torah books, Jews from all over the world would ask him all sorts of questions. The Radvaz took the time to answer these questions in detail. These questions and answers (called “responsa”) were printed into a set of books, and they total, believe it or not, over 3,000 questions… and sure enough, the Radvaz answered each and every one of them!