“In Those Days, In These Times”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This message may be a little late, but there seem to be strong parallels between the story of the enslavement of the Jews in Egypt and the Chanukah story. The parallel as well with the contemporary North American Jewish experience is particularly striking.

As recorded in last week’s parasha, parashat Vayigash, even before the Jews come down to Egypt, we learn of Jacob’s concern that his children will assimilate in Egypt and of Joseph’s sensitivity to this issue. When Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, he tells them to quickly return to their father in Canaan and to say to him that G-d had made his son the master of all of Egypt. Genesis 45:9-10 says: “R’dah ay’lai, ahl tah’ah’mohd,” Come down to me, do not delay! Joseph then tells them to say to old Jacob, “V’yah’shahv’tah v’eretz Goshen, v’ha’yee’tah ka’rov ay’lai, ah’tah, oo’vah’neh’chah, oo’v’nay vah’neh’chah,” you will reside in the land of Goshen and you’ll be near me, you, your sons, your grandchildren, your flocks, your cattle and all that is yours. Joseph further promises that he will personally provide for the entire family in Egypt so that they not become destitute during the five years of famine that still remain.

Obviously, Joseph wants to keep his family apart from the mainstream Egyptian culture that is immersed in idolatry and immorality. A separate residential area in Goshen would also enable his family to pursue shepherding, which was regarded by the Egyptians as a loathed profession. Besides, Goshen was a very fertile area, described in Genesis 47:6, as “the best of the land.”

When Joseph’s brothers first meet Pharaoh, they declare (Genesis 47:4), “La’goor ba’ah’retz ba’noo,” we’ve only come to sojourn in Egypt, to be strangers. But scripture soon points out the folly of trying to maintain one’s unique identity as a minority in the face of a strong mainstream culture. In Genesis 47:27, we are told, “Va’yay’shev Yisrael b’eretz Goshen, va’yay’ah’cha’zoo vah va’yif’roo, va’yir’boo m’ohd,” Israel settled in the land of Egypt in the region of Goshen; they acquired property in it, they were fruitful and multiplied greatly. Despite their intentions to remain apart, the Hebrews soon became real estate owners and proud Egyptian citizens. So much so, that when the book of Exodus opens and describes Jewish life after the death of Joseph and his generation, Scripture says (Exodus 1:7), Oo’v’nay Yisrael pa’roo va’yish’r’tzoo va’yir’boo, va’ya’ahtz’moo, bim’ohd m’ohd, va’tee’ma’lay ha’ah’retz oh’tahm,” And the children of Israel were fruitful, teemed, increased, and became strong–very, very much so; and the land became filled with them.

The Yalkut Shimoni and the Midrash Tanchumah both read into the phrase, “and the land became filled with them,” that the theaters and the circuses were filled with them! Just as we have experienced so many times in our long history, the Jewish people come to a new country, begin earning a living by selling notions and needles on pushcarts, which soon become general stores, which evolve into chains of department stores and boutiques. They begin to play a key role in the country’s economy and culture. Within a short time, the Jews become the impresarios and the cultural leaders of the land, the George Gershwins, Sol Huroks, Jack Bennys, Leonard Bernsteins, Jerome Robbins, Barbara Streisands, Jerry Seinfelds and Jon Stewarts.

The Netziv asserts that when scripture states that the whole land was full of them, it implies that the people of Israel no longer resided only in the land of Goshen. That’s why by the time of the 10th plague, the death of the first born, the Torah says (Exodus 12:23): “Oo’fah’sahch Hashem ahl ha’peh’tach,” G-d passed over the entrances of the [Jewish] homes, because the Jews had moved from their ghetto in the Egyptian “Boro Park,” and were now living on Fifth and Park Avenues. The Hebrews wanted to be like Egyptians, rather than live in the Ghetto of Goshen as Jacob and Joseph had hoped.

What was the result? Mass abandonment of Jewish life and Jewish observance. If there are any doubts about the effects of assimilation in Egypt, the Bible’s description of the Exodus puts them to rest. Scripture describes the departure of the Jews from Egypt as follows (Exodus 13:18): “Va’chamushim ah’loo v’nai Yisrael may’eretz Mitzrayim,” literally interpreted, it means that the Jewish people left armed. But our rabbis see much more in the word “Chamushim.” They maintain that only one fifth (from the Hebrew for five–“chamesh“) of the Jewish people wanted to leave Egypt, the rest were die-hard patriots! Despite the brutal enslavement, four-fifths of the people chose to remain in Egypt.

How could it happen that one generation after the Hebrews are hailed as the saviors of Egypt, they are transformed into hated and abused slaves? The Egyptians had given up everything–their money, their homes, their animals, their lands. Nonetheless, the Egyptian people are so grateful to the Jewish advisor who has saved them from starvation and certain death, that they cry out to Joseph (Exodus 47:25) “Heh’cheh’yee’tah’noo,” you have given us life!

But when Joseph dies, a new Pharaoh arises who sees the Jewish people as a threat–a fifth column. Pharaoh is concerned lest there be war and that the Hebrews will join Egypt’s enemies. So, in short order, the previous adulation turns into oppression (see Shemot 5761-2001, “The Not So Obvious Process of Enslavement”). It appears as if the vicious hatred that acculturation stirs in the hearts of the non-Jews is a natural result of assimilation.

It could also be that the hatred is brought upon the Jewish people by themselves, through their own arrogance, and their desire to be even more Egyptian than the Egyptians themselves. After all, it was not Pharaoh who nationalized Egypt and took away individual ownership of property. It was Joseph who confiscated the people’s lands. And, as much as they admired Joseph, the seed of resentment was planted, especially once the years of famine ended and the Egyptian people found themselves removed from their farms, serving as serfs to Pharaoh. Once the old Pharaoh was gone, the new Pharaoh rises, who does not like sharing power with Jews. The Egyptian people soon wise-up as well, and begin to assert themselves, blunting the influence of those Hebrew immigrants who think they are “better” than the native Egyptians.

In light of the above scenario which has been repeated only too often in Jewish history, we need to ask ourselves whether we are reliving that experience today? Are Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod today’s Josephs? Will their leadership, along with the frequent reports of corruption of individual Jews, cause a benevolent American exile to turn into an Egyptian nightmare?

It may be too early to tell. But, it is never too early to be wary.

May you be blessed.