Latest update: May 7th, 2014
For the past several columns I’ve been focusing on “windows” – albeit dusty windows that block our vision and prevent us from looking out and seeing the reality of our Jewish lives.
These windows are everywhere; they encompass our Yom Tovim and all events that befall us. These windows speak. They send us messages. But our ears do not hear. Our eyes do not see. Our windows are covered with layers of thick dust that have accumulated over the millennia.
We have just celebrated the wonderful days of Pesach when G-d broke the chains of our bondage and led us forth to Sinai and the Promised Land. We had beautiful Seders, and while at some point our eyelids may have become heavy with slumber, we forced ourselves to remain awake as we related the story and sang the songs of the Haggadah.
In the midst of our celebration, however, it never occurred to us to look out of our dusty windows, and after Yom Tov we returned to normal everyday life.
Yet the windows of Pesach are crucial. Through them we can see our bitter exile. Yes, the Haggadah speaks loud and clear: In every generation there are those who stand ready to pounce upon us and devour us but Hashem saves us from their hands. But few of us look out our windows and ask, Why does Hashem have to save us? Why are they trying to devour us?
We fail to understand that all of Jewish history is a replay of sorts. “Whatever happened to our forefathers is a sign” – a message to their descendants concerning what will happen throughout their long and bitter exile.
Let’s dust off the windows and study that first bondage of Egypt – the bedrock of all our future suffering.
Joseph is in Egypt and becomes the country’s viceroy. He sends a message to his father, Jacob, to come join him with the entire family. Jacob comes and Joseph, along with his entire entourage – what in our day would constitute members of Congress, the president’s cabinet, and the elite media – goes to greet him.
Paradoxically, Joseph tells his father to present himself and the family to Pharaoh as shepherds. It’s an odd message, since the Egyptians, as Rashi notes, considered sheep to be sacred and held shepherds in disdain.
Why would Joseph wish to portray his family in such a negative light? Why would he wish to alienate them from Pharaoh and the Egyptian people?
Joseph, who had survived in Egypt for twenty-two years as a lone Jew, had become an expert in preserving Jewish life in exile. He knew that in order to protect his people from disappearing, he would have to settle them in their own community where they could adhere to their own traditions without being threatened by assimilation. But for that to happen, the Egyptians would have to keep Jews apart from the mainstream of Egyptian society and isolate them in their own neighborhood, hence Joseph’s instructions to Jacob. And indeed, a “Jewish city” arose – Goshen.
Thus, Joseph laid down one of the first principles of Jewish survival – a strong, self-contained Jewish community. The Jews prospered, but while they became a vital part of Egypt, they remained a nation apart. All this came to a dramatic halt with the death of the Jacob. This change is related in the Torah in so subtle a manner that the casual student would probably not even pick it up.
Every Torah portion in a sefer Torah either starts on a new line or is separated from the next portion by at least a nine-letter space. But the last portion of Genesis, Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26), in which Jacob’s demise is announced, is not separated from the previous portion (Vayigash), and is therefore known as a “stuma” – closed. Rashi explains that “with the death of the patriarch, the eyes and hearts of the Jewish people closed – shut down due to the anguish of the bondage.”
At first glance this is puzzling, since the actual bondage did not commence until almost eighty years later, when the last of Jacob’s sons died. So what is the deeper meaning of this teaching?
Our sages explain that one of the reasons why spaces are left between sections is to invite us to meditate on the preceding verses. But the very fact that there is no break between these two portions indicates that the children of Jacob did not fully grasp the import of the last words of Vayigash, “Israel settled in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen and were fruitful and acquired property.” The Hebrew words for “acquired property” – “vaye’achazu” – mean much more than simply buying real estate. They connote taking possession of the land, becoming part of the culture and assimilating.
Assimilation was the first step toward bondage – a reality to which the Jews in Egypt were blind.
Now we can understand why the Torah teaches us that our bondage commenced with the death of Jacob. As long as he was alive our people stayed in their own environment, in their unique Jewish community, but after his demise they “took possession of the land,” buying homes and real estate throughout the country. The Book of Exodus opens with this new reality: “The children of Israel were fruitful and multiplied. They prospered very much and the land was filled with them.”
Jews became a vital force in every segment of Egyptian society, and our sages explain that this included whatever form of entertainment was popular in those days. This acculturation – assimilation – was paralleled by a total change in government: “A new Pharaoh arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). But how could that be? Can a president of the United States claim he doesn’t know who preceded him? Could the new Pharaoh not have known Joseph?
Once again our sages shed illumination. Pharaoh did not want to know Joseph. He abolished the laws that Joseph enacted, denied Egypt’s indebtedness to Joseph and his family, and accused them of exploitation and sabotage.
Overnight, Pharaoh demonized the Jewish contributions that had helped transform a famine-plagued country into a great and prosperous empire. He accused the Jews of being a fifth column that threatened the very survival of Egypt. He levied special taxes on them and commanded that they build cities for the welfare of the state; he cast them into slave labor camps and broke their bodies under the weight of excruciating labor; and he crushed their spirit with meaningless, futile tasks. And then he ordered that every male child be killed at birth (Exodus 1:10-7).
Does it sound familiar? Do you recognize 20th-century Europe? Do you see parallels to the Holocaust? And do you see similar winds blowing today?
(To be continued)
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