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Shmot(Exodus 1:1-6:1)

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), it is important to identify: What was the secret of success for the Jewish community in Egypt?

The Torah provides 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 instituted a hedge against assimilation: agreeing not to change their names, style of dress, or language. With these safeguards, they were able to maintain a healthy, unique identity.

Dual Loyalty

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 Jews 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 discriminated against because they have strange customs. In this case, however, the Egyptians never bothered 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 based on a 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 1920s. In the United States, Henry Ford sponsored its publication. It has been printed in numerous languages, and till today has global distribution.

Even 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 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 - working extra hard, putting in overtime, and surpassing production quotas.

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. The Egyptians had been keeping records and knew exactly how much each Jew could produce - while working overtime! This became the new quota. In their drive for acceptance, 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, the Jewish philosopher-poet Yehudah Leib Gordon admonished his listeners with a phrase that became the watch-word for much of Jewish behavior in that era: "Be a Jew in your house, and a regular person outside" (Yehudi bi-vay-techa, Adam bi-tzay-techa). 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 outward Jewish signs such as Kipah (head-covering), Tzitzit (fringes on the garment), and Kashrut (dietary laws) 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."

A crisis of assimilation is happening again today. Young Jews are apathetic and disinterested. How can we break the cycle and turn the ship around?

It starts with each of us, expressing our Jewish identity on a regular basis. Some suggestions: Make the commitment to Jewish education for yourself and your children. Light Shabbat candles and the Shema every day. Listen to Torah classes while commuting, or start a lunchtime study group at the office. Teach (or your neighbor’s children). Speak Hebrew and play Jewish music. And 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.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shraga Simmons

Published: January 15, 2000

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Visitor Comments: 15

(10) ר,פ,א,ל,, January 17, 2009 3:16 PM

being a jew is expensive

let's start the tab: 1) cost of 1 year in day school in an urban area = $15,000 (mind you, after taxes) 2) kosher meat is 30-50% more expensive than non-kosher meat. (As an insider I can tell you first hand that the cost of hashgacha does not amount to such increase in cost. OU / OK and the likes are making quite a nice living and affordability of meat is not particular priority) 3) Kosher vegan - most vegan food producers (most of whom are small) cannot afford a kosher certification. With the absence of kosher sh'chita (koshr slaughter) and meat dairy issues it would be prudent for our rabbis to declare vegan products as kosher. 4) flying to israel on elal = $1500 flying to turkey on turkish air (very similar distance) $1000 I can go on and on. No wonder majority of Jews in the US are unaffiliated. Even if they want to, most cannot afford Jewish education.

Anonymous, January 3, 2013 1:30 PM

cost

How expensive it is to send children to school is a real problem, but if you'd pay for college or go through the sometimes humiliating process of asking for tuition assistance for secular education, you should do the same for Jewish education. And if not, then at least affiliate with some synagogue and participate and take advantage of the educational opportunities offered that are less than full day school. To say you are unaffiliated is to say you just don't care. As to kosher food and its cost, I recall that a (then) non-observant law school classmate of mine was asked by the Bostoner Rebbe why he did not keep kosher and when my classmate cited the cost, the Rebbe offered to pay the difference. My classmate declined the offer but was sufficiently moved by it to reassess his position and became observant.

Leah, January 4, 2013 6:12 AM

you see what you look for

Doubtful that you'll even see this but what you wrote deserves a response, and I mean this as a "tough love" response, I wish that tone of voice could be heard in this note: Quit whining. Today you can get funded (fly for free!) to make aliyah and then you can send your kid to a religious school for nearly nothing. Americans (and I'm one) are so arrogant in the spectrum of cultures and it's time for us all to wake up. I could go on and on about how to save money (I'm the child of parents who grew up in the depression and learned how to rinse and reuse aluminum foil, shop second hand, etc.) I don't think that's the real issue for you. My free advice? Express more gratitude. Daily. Even the "new age" sources say that paying bills with gratitude opens the channels for good. Life can be hard, I know that. But what part of life holds the most meaning for you? What is the inheritance you're giving your children? A bank account at the end of your life? Or a rich world of G.d and Torah? If it's too hard in the US, move Israel (there's plenty hard here too) and at least your struggles will be on par with the whole rest of the country. Anyway, we want you here--we'll kvetch together as we sit in the Succah or dance by the Kotel, or admire the young soldiers. We'll whine together about the increase in prices as we shop for Shabbos. And we'll bask in the kedusha (holiness) and in the diversity, and we'll laugh at the craziness. Come home already!

(9) Sarai, December 27, 2007 9:12 PM

"Be a Jew in your house, and a regular person outside."

It is impossible to be a Jew in your house, and a regular person outside. If you are a "regular" person outside than that to me means you weren't a Jew when you left your house. To be a Jew is not to have favor in the eyes of society to be a Jew is to have favor in the eyes of Hashem and only Hashem! If you prefer to have favor in the eyes of anyone else than Hashem- you have broken the first mitzva!! Our Jewish identity (the way we dress, speak and even the we walk) is a mistake to think that we do it for other people to notice we are different from them. We do it for two reasons: First, satisfy mitzvot and second it is for US to distinguish ourselves from others. Let's remember Torah teaches us we are oil and gentiles are water. When have you seen oil and water mix? NEVER!! It doesn't mix. Pour oil and water into a bowl for example, the oil will always maitain itself at the top and water sinks to the bottom. It is not the same to be Jewish and Yehudim. There is an enormous difference. Jewish simply means someone who was born in Jerusalem; Yehudim on the other hand, is he or she who worships Hashem. LET'S WORSHIP KADOSH BARUJ HU. May Hashem bless you all. Shabath Shalom.

(8) Margarita, January 27, 2006 12:00 AM

great article

great article and very well put.

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