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Parasha Notes: The Egyptian Holocaust

August 2, 2015

Deuteronomy 4:20:

But the Lord took you and brought you out mikur habarzel, out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be a people of His possession, as of this day.

Jeremiah 11:4

Which I commanded your forefathers on the day I took them out of the land of Egypt, out of the iron furnace, saying: Hearken to My voice and do them, according to all that I will command you, and you shall be to Me for a people, and I will be to you for a God

Rashi to Deuteronomy describes the iron furnace as a device used for the refinement of gold, but he does not say if it is an allegory for anything, and I have seen that no other classical commentator down to R’ Hirsch explained it as an allegory! As a matter of fact most commentaries follow the Yalkut Shimoni to this verse: the tanna qamma says that just like the smith can take the gold and place it in or remove it from the furnace whenever he wants, so too, God was in complete control of the duration of the Egyptian bondage, while Rabbi Akiva uses the verse’s imagery to describe the inferno, literally, the asphyxiation and burning of innocents, and indeed his interpretation and imagery have been borrowed by many in reference to the Holocaust. (For example, Topas’s well-known memoir is called The Iron Furnace.) Yet, it is almost common knowledge that the iron furnace is a metaphor for the refinement of our ancestors’ national character. We have all heard the vort somewhere before, and assume that Rashi himself uses it it here. Where do we get it from?

I did some research and indeed, Rashi and other commentaries to Jeremiah 11:4, where the imagery of the iron furnace is used once again, do then explain the allegory, that Israel was refined in Egypt, and apparently, the Artscroll Stone Chummash included this interpretation in Deuteronomy, but they say it in the name of the book Hak’thav W’haqabbala.)

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