What time is it, Fred? It’s time for me to collect my thoughts about our trip, now that we’ve been back in The Land for five weeks or so. If a bunch of us were sitting around the dinner table on a Friday night, and I was asked to summarize what we saw and what I came away with and to do it concisely before someone interrupted and changed the topic – which is what usually happens when people get together over a meal – what would I have to say? I might commence with a platitude, Glad to be back. But everyone assembled at this fanciful dinner probably assumed that. Nobody actually thought that I would want to spend the rest of my days on the banks of the Nile. Yeah, you can live there like a pharaoh on a pittance, but no thanks. I don’t do Third World. (Third world, couldn’t be prouder/Third world, let’s honk a little louder)
Rosenberg nails it
What’s the problem with Egypt? As I was writing the earlier articles in this series, I came upon this headline in the English-language Haaretz: “Modern Egypt’s 10 plagues are all about the economy,” with the sub-head, “Even the most casual visitor can’t ignore the massive waste of human capital. Who needs so many bathroom attendants?” David Rosenberg, you got that right! The reporter mentions “double-digit inflation, a shortage of dollars to pay for imports, declining subsidies for the poor and declining standard of living as population growth exceeds economic growth…” Plus the growing reluctance of the Gulf States to bail them out. He ends his article with the following observation: “This Passover, the Jews should not only celebrate their freedom but the fact that they got out 3,000 years ago while the going was good.” Maybe our tour group got out just in the nick of time! Who knew? Most of our group was too busy buying souvenirs to consider the existential threat to our collective well-being. But all’s well that ends well.
Rosenberg includes one statistic that says it all. In 1950, the GDP of Egypt and South Korea were about the same. Today, the GDP of South Korea has grown to ten times that of Egypt. What about Israel? The article didn’t say, so there was nothing else to do but Google it. Israel’s per capita GDP (2021) is $52,000, compared to $35,000 for Korea and $3700 for our neighbors on the Nile. How’s that! There’s one point that bears repeating: We in The Land have to leave and visit some of our neighbors to appreciate how good we have it here – even with all the unnecessary turmoil we’re going through. We tend to get upset if the bus we’re waiting for is late or doesn’t show up. But we’re not forced to ride 30-year-old non-air-conditioned buses in the heat of the summer, as used to be the standard even here not so long ago. And if we’re on a bus looking out the window, we’re not forced to look at a never-ending stream of pictures of The Leader anywhere and everywhere.
But what about the pyramids?
But we know about the Egyptian economy; we can read about ourselves in the local papers. But you didn’t go there for that. What about the pyramids and the other things you saw? Years ago, we spent several hours at the Louvre, and I’m sure I wrote about our visit: about the hullabaloo in the room where The Mona Lisa is installed vs. the other masterpieces by Leonardo and Botticelli elsewhere that get much less attention, which makes it easier to see them – not get a passing glance from 50 feet away. Nothing is comparable to standing in a gallery face-to-face, eyeball to eyeball, with some of these masterpieces, as opposed to the reproductions you might have seen in Art Appreciation 101. Likewise, you can get off a tour bus with a picture in a guidebook (or the photo I posted in my article) of the statues at Abu Simbel, but nothing would prepare you for turning the corner and seeing for yourself these gigantic sculptures carved out of bedrock for the first time. I don’t pretend to remember everything that Migo was explaining to us, but the basics, much of which I’ve written about: when, where, and what, as well as the iconography – what the statues and the frescoes were meant to convey – I do remember even if I can’t tell you where we were at any given time.
But what about Rabbi Berman; wasn’t that one of the reasons you guys went? Absolutely. It was a pleasure to be in his company, and the fact that he appreciates a good bourbon, a decent bottle of wine, and a properly made cup of coffee is an added bonus. Wherever we went, he had something to add, quite often referencing something in Tanakh. Part of his presentations were about how the Torah adapts themes, ideas, names from the culture the Children of Israel were surrounded by back then, but he was more focused on how Judaism is diametrically opposed to the prevailing culture of the day with its preoccupation with the netherworld (as opposed to olam haba).
An unsolicited plug for Berman’s book
The rabbi/professor had what he described as a grand theme, one he had first articulated back in 2009 in his article “The Biblical Origins of Equality,” which I linked before and am doing again for your edification. Only now he was focused on how his theme specifically applied to Egypt. Anyone who has the chance to eyeball any of the pyramids, temples, or tombs (let’s leave the toilets out of our discussion) in the land of the Nile has to marvel at their artistry and how much time, money, and effort went into creating them. But, on sober reflection, you’d have to wonder, how much of the economy (think GDP) went into ensuring smooth passages into the netherworld for the royal families, and how much was left for everyone else to make do with in this world?
Yes, there were kings and priests in ancient Israel, but they were pikers compared to the pharaohs. And they certainly didn’t have the self-created importance of the Egyptian rulers. There were limits to the power and prestige of the Davidic dynasty, as well as their wealth. Nobody imagined that Jehoahaz, for example, was remotely divine. And there was supposed to be a clear distinction between the king and the priestly class. (We’re looking at you, Hashmoneans!) You get the idea. We tend to forget how revolutionary the Torah was (and still is). But when you’re on site, and it’s a topic of discussion, it sort of hits home. There’s a lot more, but I don’t want to steal R. Berman’s thunder. We’re not sitting around the dining room table on a Friday night, so you’re free to read the article for yourself. (And check out his book, Ani Maamin, available from the usual vendors.) So yeah, glad to be back.
Truth be told…
I have to make a confession. Visiting Egypt was not on my ‘bucket list.’ Truth be told, I don’t have such a list; I don’t even own a bucket. But I’m glad my personal trip advisor insisted we go, as has been the case with all the other places we have visited since we made the Big Move in 2007 to the Land of Our Ancestors. Some of tour mates were reminiscing about all the places they’ve been to and planning their next trip to Somewhere. I say, do it in moderation. There are only so many days in a year I want to be away from my pillow and our cats. The rest of the time? Some of it has been and will be spent in regaling you, my small but discriminating audience, with our adventures, modest as they may be.
One final thing. We had returned to Ben-Gurion airport, and while I was waiting for Barbara to finish using the facilities, I took this picture with my phone. Never turn down an opportunity; that’s my motto.
One thought on “Temples, and Toilets, and Tombs, Oh My — Epilogue”
Fred, thanks for sharing your travel experiences. I’m enjoying them.