Parshat Shmot: How did anti-Semitism begin?

How did the nation’s status deteriorate from a successful and well-connected community to that of lowly, humiliated slaves?

pyramids 370 (photo credit: Rhikal/Wikimedia Commons)
pyramids 370
(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.
The small 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 and Ya’acov.
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 restrained clothing.
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 them.
(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 lifestyle.
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 head.
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.