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The Process of Assimilation

Shmot (Exodus 1:1-6:1 )

by Rabbi Shraga Simmons

On being a proud Jew today.

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

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