By Rabbi Mordechai Greenberg, Rosh Yeshiva, Kerem B'Yavneh
"... For G-d said, lest the nation changes its mind when the people see war and they will return to Egypt" [Shemot 13:17]. And in fact they did complain later on, on more than one occasion: "Isn't that what we said to you in Egypt – leave us alone and we will work for Egypt" [14:11] ... "Why can't we die in the hands of G-d... while sitting at the pot of meat" [16:3] ... And they even asked to return to Egypt after they had left: "Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt" [Bamidbar 14:4].
This also appears explicitly in the words of the prophet: "I said to them: Let every man throw away the despicable idols of his eyes... However, they rebelled against me and nobody threw away the despicable idols from his eyes" [Yechezkel 20:7].
But we can only feel perplexed. How could they even consider returning to exile, how could they not be excited by the prospect of freedom?
When we look at the attitudes in recent generations, we will see that the problem is not only with respect to simple idols but is also a difficulty of freeing ourselves from cultural behavior which is foreign to Judaism. Here are some examples of this phenomenon: The Zionist movement rose up after two thousand years of exile. There was opposition for this idea from all sides – Chareidim, nonreligious, and "enlightened" Jews of the Haskalah movement. The rabbi of a prominent community in Hungary wrote: "Political Zionism, which wants to establish a Jewish State in Eretz Yisrael, appears to me to be a dangerous spiritual illness... The Zionist movement, which wants to transform Judaism from a religious force to a nation, has no chance of ever succeeding in Hungary. We are Hungarians whose religion is Judaism. There is no such thing as Jewish nationalism. Everybody agrees that this is so, both those who have new ideas and the Orthodox Jews."
And the head of the Orthodox rabbis indeed followed his lead: "With respect to their opinion of the Zionist movement, the Orthodox rabbis agree with the innovators. We object to this foolish movement. The Hungarians of the Jewish religion want to find their happiness in Hungary, they have no thoughts at all of establishing a country in Eretz Yisrael."
Some people enlisted the holy writing in their cause. The association of rabbis in Germany declared that "the desires of those who are called Zionists, to establish a national Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael, is directly opposed to the messianic goals of Judaism as they appear in the holy texts and in religious sources from later periods."
Philosopher Hermann Cohen wrote that the ideas of Theodor Herzl are a distortion of true Jewish messianism and an insult to the patriotism of the Jews, who are comfortable in their homeland. "We draw a feeling of religious partnership from the existing compatibility between Jewish messianism and German humanism... This almost goes so far as to have the seal of approval of a religious statement."
History continually repeats itself, again and again. "We remember the fish which we ate for free in Egypt... the melons..." [Bamidbar 11:5]. The same is still true today, except that the subject matter has changed, and instead of free fish and watermelons in Egypt, the people talk about a "Milky" dairy desert that is sold in Germany for half price.
How do the Jews reach such a low point in their thoughts? It is written, "And they did not listen to Moshe, because of impatience and because of the harsh labor" [Shemot 6:9]. In the Torah portion of Shemot it is written that "the people believed" [4:31] about the announcement of the redemption, but now they were told, "I will take you as a nation for Me, and I will be your G-d" [6:7]. And this is a very frightening prospect, especially "from the point of view that they were not Torah scholars. And this is what is called impatience, since the Torah broadens the outlook of people" [Orach Chaim].