(photo credit: Rhikal/Wikimedia Commons)
This week, we will begin reading
from the second of the five books of the Torah, Shmot, or Exodus. This book
deals with Am Yisrael’s time of exile in Egypt, its wondrous and super-natural
Exodus, the revelation at Mount Sinai at which the Torah was given to Am
Yisrael, and the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) – the temporary “temple”
which accompanied Am Yisrael for centuries until the Temple was built in its
permanent site in Jerusalem.
At the end of the previous book, Genesis, we
left Am Yisrael as it was developing gloriously in Egypt.
Jewish community that descended into Egypt lived in a special area termed the
Land of Goshen,” depended on respectable ties in the Egyptian royal palace, and
faithfully maintained the traditions of the three patriarchs, Avraham, Yitzchak
On the other hand, at the beginning of Exodus, we read about
a terribly depressed period in which our ancestors were worked to the bone, and
suffered from abuse at the hands of the corrupt Egyptian nation. The lowest
point was with pharaoh’s decree to throw every Jewish baby boy into the Nile
River immediately upon birth, thus annihilating the Jewish nation. This plot, as
we all know, did not succeed.
How did the nation’s status deteriorate
from a successful and well-connected community to that of lowly, humiliated
slaves? To understand this, we must find the secret of the Jewish nation’s
success in Egypt during this first period, and try to see how the nation lost
its unique status in Egypt.
Ancient Egypt was a corrupt pagan center, a
land where pagan worship affected the entire nation, beginning with the king and
until the last of the nation. Then Ya’acov’s family came to this ignoble culture
carrying the flag of belief in one G-d, the ideological path Avraham Avinu had
paved of kindness, charity and justice.
Our sages tell us that when
Ya’acov and his family arrived in Egypt, they were concerned about assimilation,
so they took upon themselves not to change three things: their names, their
language and their manner of dress. Ya’acov’s family living in Egypt was unique
in its Hebraic names and language, and their special, modest, respectable and
These three traditions saved the nation from
assimilating into the Egyptian nation, and worse – into the corrupt and pagan
Egyptian culture. But this unique family did not manage to maintain its values
for long. The Torah tells us this: “Now Joseph died, as well as all his brothers
and all that generation. The children of Israel were fruitful and swarmed and
increased and became very, very strong, and the land became filled with
(Exodus 1:6-7) Immediately upon the death of the first generation
of the Jewish community in Egypt, the process of integration into Egyptian
culture began, with the symbol of this integration being the phrase “and the
land became filled with them.” The nation began to go out to the Egyptian
expanses, began to get to know the Egyptian nation, its beliefs and
The Egyptian response quickly followed: “So they appointed
over them tax collectors to afflict them with their burdens… So the Egyptians
enslaved the children of Israel with back-breaking labor.” (Exodus 1:11-13) The
response to integration into Egyptian society was, seemingly, contrary to logic.
Usually people tend to express hatred to those who are different and apart from
them, but here there was the opposite process. When Am Yisrael preserved its
uniqueness, it was treated with respect and appreciation, but when the nation
started to fall apart and lose its values, anti-Semitism reared its
Contrary to what we sometimes think, history teaches us the
opposite. The more the Jewish nation preserves its values, believes in the
righteousness of its path, and is proud of its faith and Torah, the more it
merits respect, appreciation and even admiration.
However, when the
Jewish nation stoops down, when we feel that our ancient Jewish culture is not
advanced enough and that we must take upon ourselves the lifestyle of other
nations, that’s when we discover that the world is not interested in us, that
the nations of the world do not defend us, and that the respect turns to disdain
and even hatred.
An incisive Jewish saying expresses this message: “When
the Jew doesn’t do kiddush, the Gentile does havdala.” Meaning, when the Jew
does not maintain his uniqueness and holiness, the Gentile reminds him of this
through latent or manifest anti-Semitism, and makes sure to differentiate and
distance him from the international community.The writer is rabbi of the
Western Wall and Holy Sites.