In my study of the many parallels found in the respective exiles of Ya’akov and Moshe, I discussed just how important exile was to who they become. Much of what I wrote about Ya’akov in Lavan’s house and Moshe in Yitro’s house, however, is also true about the Jewish people in Egypt more generally. As with Ya’akov and Moshe, living in a foreign culture was a formative experience for the Jewish people as a whole.
The predicament of exile almost forces one to see the more general ties that bind all people, and not only the particularities that separate. Accordingly, a type of universalism lends itself to becoming the worldview – and sometimes even the pet cause – of a minority living within a larger host culture. The line, “Are we not brothers; are we not children of one father” (Taanit 18a) is almost uniquely pronounced by the man at such a disadvantage.
However that is only one side of the picture. Judaism is far from being a uniquely universalistic religion. Quite the contrary, it holds on to the very particular experience of the Jewish people in order to anchor its truths in real life. After all, universal man is a fiction created – in the most enlightened case – as a laboratory model from which to learn about the particular experiences of real nations and real people.
In looking at this topic, I want to focus on the end of the exile in this week’s parsha, and how similar it is to the end of Ya’akov’s exile in the house of Lavan. Others have already noted the similarity of the escape – down to the three day grace period, the indirect way in which Lavan/Pharaoh finds out about the escape, the chase that ensues and the delivery of the Jews from their oppressors on the seventh day.
Interesting is the resistance of the host society to the departure of the Jews, even as they are viewed as outsiders from a different land. This is likely an important part of the reason why the separation on the seventh day must be so final. For whether we are dealing with Pharaoh or Lavan, God makes it quite clear – albeit in very different ways – that there is no way back to the past. But not only is a return to exile taken off the table, the notion of even retaining some sort of cooperative relationship is likewise rendered a non-option. Yet this finality is not only important for Pharaoh, it is perhaps even more important for the Jews.
In this context, I suggest that we note the number of days involved. While seven represents the most common Biblical cycle, its root is in the seven days of creation. That is to say that after the passage of seven units of time, a new reality comes into existence. Hence the seven day culmination of the Egyptian exile is also meant as a type of creation story – the creation of Israel as a distinct nation.
While I think there are parallels to be drawn for the modern state of Israel, I do not believe this type of separation is applicable to most other nations. It is specifically because the Jewish nation is the most radically universal of nations that it must also become radically separate. Because it so easily and passionately identifies with what binds it together with mankind as a whole, it risks completely losing itself in the universal.
Especially in the Modern Period, there have been countless great Jews who have lost their identity this way and who thereby lived a disembodied and artificial existence. Its most tragic dimension comes to mind in the story of Rosa Luxemburg, the famous German Jewish political activist killed in 1919. When asked about the plight of her fellow Jews in Europe not so long before the Holocaust, she responded, “I am just as much concerned with the poor victims on the rubber plantations of Putumayo, the Blacks in Africa… I have no special place in my heart for the ghetto. I feel at home in the entire world, wherever there are clouds and birds and human tears.”
As most of my readers already know, I am the first one to endorse Jews’ concern for other groups that can benefit from our help. But that is very different from losing our own identity in the process.
And don’t forget to listen to the related podcast episode, Vaccines, Scarcity and the Limits of Jewish Universalism!