One of the most common psychological defense mechanisms used by human beings is denial. We all repress unpleasant experiences and do not want to be confronted with reality when it is too uncomfortable. Sigmund Freud was the first to postulate the theory and draw attention to it.
In the Torah we read about a bizarre complaint brought against Moshe. After the Israelites had witnessed the 10 plagues and downfall of Pharaoh, and then left Egypt, Moshe was accused by his own people of having brought disaster upon them. Once they realized Pharaoh was chasing them, they said:
Are there not enough graves in Egypt that you have brought us here to die in the desert? How could you do this to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Did we not tell you in Egypt to leave us alone and let us work for the Egyptians? For it would have been better to be slaves in Egypt than to die in the desert (1).
A most remarkable distortion of what actually took place! What skepticism, arrogance and utter lies: “We told you so in Egypt!” Even more surprising is the fact that after witnessing the unprecedented miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea, the Jews once again resorted to these falsehoods:
Then, in the desert, the entire Israelite community began to complain against Moshe and Aharon. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by God’s hand in Egypt. There, at least we could sit by pots of meat and eat our fill of bread. But you had to bring us out to this desert, to kill the entire community by starvation!” (2).
This argument is astonishing—a fabrication of huge proportions! Was that really the choice? Living a life of tranquility in Egypt or dying in the wilderness? Moreover, God’s name is invoked so as to make the argument stronger.
There are several ways to understand this phenomenon of extreme self-deception. Obviously, the Israelites were very well aware that their past was certainly not one of tranquility, sitting by pots of meat and eating their fill of bread. So, what were they saying?
I would like to suggest that they did not intend to deny the past, but rather the future—not that it did not happen, but that it would not happen again!
They said to themselves: Now that Pharaoh has been without us for some time, he has surely realized that we are a great asset to his nation and the future of his government. He needs the “yiddishe kup” (Jewish brains) to run and develop his country. So let us return home in triumph! We shall be received with dignity and prestige. Don’t you realize, Moshe, that Pharaoh’s chasing after us is really a clear indication of his desire to escort us peacefully back to Egypt and offer us comfortable homes and food? We are afraid of them only because your refusal to allow us to go home will lead to chaos and pandemonium, and they will kill us out of frustration. Pharaoh has learned his lesson, and from now on we will indeed live in contentment, partaking of Egypt’s bread and pots of meat! Why can’t you see this?
Even after the splitting of the Red Sea, this argument is still convincing. God only split the Red Sea to show Pharaoh and the Egyptians what a glorious people we are. We are protected by God and therefore of invaluable importance to Egypt. We will be given the most prestigious offices in the country. This has opened up a new world and it is time to realize that. And if you, Moshe, ask us how we know that this is exactly what God has in mind, we respond that He would otherwise have given us plenty of food in the desert, and we would not have been chased by Pharaoh. God would have crushed Pharaoh’s chariots the moment he left Egypt. So, all that is happening to us is a clear indication that we are ethically, and even halachically, obligated to return to Egypt!
The reason why Pharaoh did all these terrible things to us is because his astrologers told him that a male child would one day be born to the Israelites and would rescue them from their plight (3), and therefore he started killing our boys. But if we would have made it clear that we wanted to stay, and if no dreams of freedom would have tempted us, nothing unpleasant would have happened. We would have remained and been part of the Egyptian kultur gesellschaft (cultural society) and everything would have been fine. But now, since we acted out of double loyalties, we are paying the price.
This may very well have been the reason why Moshe, standing at the burning bush, shied away from God’s command to be the redeemer, claiming that he had a speech impediment (4). He did not want to take this task on himself, because he realized that when he would return to Egypt the Jews would say to him: It all started with you. Because of you, our children were killed. So leave us alone and forget your aspirations to be our redeemer. That would indeed have rendered him speechless.
The complaints of the Israelites after leaving Egypt were only the beginning of a long history of grandiose Jewish self-deception. To this day, these attitudes often create the foundations of Jewish self-repudiation and self-loathing, which become the root of animosity towards anyone who does not join this self-imposed denial of the Jewish cause.
Looking back through Jewish history and now at current events, including in Israel, we recognize the above arguments as being all too familiar.
1. Shemoth, 14:11-12.
2. Ibid., 16:2-3.
3. Rashi on Shemoth, 1:16.
4. Shemoth, 4:10.