The Process of Assimilation
Three Jews are at the Country Club discussing their ethnic origins. The first says, "My father was from the old country. His name was Goldsmith. He worked in gold and made a good living. When I took over the business, I changed my name to Gold."
The second one says, "My father also came from the old country. His name was Silverstein. He worked in silver and made a good living. When I took over his company, I shortened my name to Silver."
The third man says, "My father came from the old country, too. His name was Schneider. He was a tailor and always struggled to make a living. He taught me the trade and I struggled, too. One day I turned toward Heaven and prayed: 'Lord, help me succeed in business and we'll be partners.' Since then my business has become a great success!"
The other two look at him and say, "Do you really expect us to believe that story?"
"Sure," he says, "haven't you ever heard of Lord and Taylor?"
Safeguard to Continuity
When we last left Jacob and his 12 sons, they were thriving. Despite being set in the midst of a corrupt Egyptian society, the Jewish community was flourishing with schools, synagogues and social networks. With such a strong "Jewish" infrastructure, assimilation was virtually non-existent; in fact, the Talmud reports there was only one incident of intermarriage!
Today, with "Jewish continuity" such a priority (as it is in every generation), we want to know: What was the secret of success for the Jewish community in Egypt?
The Torah provides us with two insights: First, in Genesis 46:28, when the Jews move down to Egypt, Jacob sends Judah ahead to make advance arrangements. The word the Torah uses to describe Judah's preparations ― "li-horot" ― means "to teach." The Midrash says that before any synagogue, senior center or JCC, Judah established a Jewish school. To ensure Jewish continuity, Jewish education must be the number one priority.
Second, the Midrash says that when Jacob's family arrived in Egypt, they made a pact amongst themselves to prevent assimilation. They agreed not to change their names, style of dress, or language. With these safeguards, they were able to maintain a healthy degree of unique identity.
At the beginning of this week's Parsha, the Torah says:
"Joseph died, along with all his brothers and that entire generation. The Jews increased and became very strong and the land was filled with them." (Exodus 1:6-7)
The tide had turned. Immediately after the old generation died, the Jewish People spread throughout Egypt and the assimilation began. They dropped their Jewish customs and blended into secular society.
What happens next may shock you. Immediately, verse 8 reports the rise of anti-Semitism in Egypt. What makes this so unusual is that hatred of one group for another is typically due to what sociologists call "dislike of the unlike." Foreigners are frequently discriminated against because they have strange customs. But in this case, the Egyptians didn't bother the Jews as long as they kept to themselves. Only once they began to resemble "regular Egyptians" did the anti-Semitism begin.
As the Torah records:
"[Pharaoh] told his people: 'Behold, the Jews are more numerous and stronger than we. Let us take precautions so that if a war should occur, they won't side with our enemy." (Exodus 1:9-10)
The dual loyalty issue had reared its ugly head.
Anti-Semitism is often generated with the perception that Jews have power and influence. Case in point: "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion." A forgery purporting to be the conspiratorial discussions of the Jewish elders plotting to take over the world, it was ― next to the Bible ― the best-selling book in the world during the 1920's. In the United States, Henry Ford sponsored its publication. It has since been printed in numerous languages internationally, and presently has widespread distribution in Japan.
And today on the streets of America, whispers can be heard: "Jews control Hollywood, Jews control the media, Israel gets too much foreign aid, etc."
Every American Jew has heard the question posed: "If the United States and Israel went to war, on whose side would you fight?" It's a good question to ponder...
Caught in the Trap
As it turns out, the Egyptians did not enslave the Jews outright. Pharaoh played off the Jews' desire for acceptance, and announced the beginning of a massive public works campaign. All "good" Egyptian citizens were invited to participate in building the storage cities of Pitom and Raamses. To set an example, Pharaoh himself came out the first day wearing a brick-mold around his neck.
As expected, the Jews came out in full force. Even more, they bent over backwards to prove themselves as loyal Egyptian citizens: the Jews worked extra hard, put in overtime, surpassed production quotas, etc.
Then Pharaoh made his move. He announced that for the Jews, the work was no longer voluntary. Each Jew was now enslaved, and expected to produce abundantly. In fact, the Egyptians kept accurate records and knew exactly how much each Jew could produce ― while working overtime! This became the new quota. In their effort to be accepted by the Egyptians, the Jews had sealed their own fate.
The Torah says: "The Egyptians enslaved the Jews bi-perach" (Exodus 1:14). "Perach" is usually translated as with "crushing hardness." But "perach" can also mean with "a soft mouth." The Jews were sweet-talked into it.
Where Are We Today?
A little over a hundred years ago, an "enlightened" Jewish philosopher-poet by the name of Yehudah Leib Gordon admonished his listeners with a phrase that became the watch-word for much of Jewish behavior in that era: Yehudi bi-vay-techa, Adam bi-tzay-techa ― "Be a Jew in your house, and a regular person outside." In other words, keep your Jewishness and its practice as your own private affair, and when interacting with the rest of the world, relegate your Jewish identity to the back burner. Or hide it altogether.
Many followed Gordon's advice, and the outward signs and symbols of Judaism ― Kipah (head-covering), Tzitzit (fringes on the garment), Tefillin (phylacteries), Brachot (blessings) and Kashrut (dietary laws) ― to name just a few ― were abandoned in public, as the Jews strove to imitate and emulate their gentile neighbors.
Eventually this public neglect of Jewish life spilled over into the private arena as well, and soon the motto was altered: "Be a Jew neither in your house nor outside."
It's happening again today and the consequences are devastating. Young Jews are apathetic and disinterested. But if you're reading this, you are amongst those who care. We can break the cycle and turn our ship around. How? Express your Jewish identity on a regular basis. Make the commitment to Jewish education and Jewish observance. Light Shabbos candles, or say the Shema. Listen to Torah cassettes while commuting, or start a lunchtime study group at the office. Teach your children (or your neighbor's children). Speak Hebrew and play Jewish music. Or even pay that long-overdue visit to Israel.
Don't hesitate. Judaism is not all-or-nothing. The options are endless. The experience is transforming. The reward is eternal.
Rabbi Shraga Simmons