“The Role of Exile in Jewish History”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shemot, the book of Exodus opens with the story of the people of Israel’s enslavement in the land of Egypt.

From the time of Abraham, the fate of exile, enslavement and persecution for the Jewish people was already etched in stone. In the Covenant Between the Pieces, G-d told Abraham, Genesis 15:13-14, that he should know with certainty that his offspring will be strangers in a land that is not their own. In exile, the people will be enslaved and oppressed for 400 years. G-d also predicted that He will judge the nation that enslaves the Israelites, and that afterwards, the people of Israel will leave with great wealth.

The questions remained: What country would enslave Israel and by what means would Israel enter into exile, to experience the enslavement and persecution?

Two Midrashim describe the Divine process of bringing the Children of Israel down to Egypt and fulfilling the prediction of the Covenant Between the Pieces. The Midrash Tanchuma on Genesis 39:1 explains:

This is comparable to a cow, upon whom it was desired to place a yoke [so she could plow]. But the cow was withholding her neck from the yoke. What did they do? They took her calf from behind her, and drew him to the place where they wanted her [the cow] to plow, and the calf was bleating. When the cow heard her calf bleating, she went despite herself, because of her child.

By the same token, G-d wished to fulfill the decree (Genesis 15:13), “Know with certainty that your children will be strangers in a land that is not their own…” So He plotted all these events [of Joseph’s sale to Egypt]…

The Midrash Rabba adds the following details:

Jacob might have been brought down to Egypt in chains. But, then G-d declared: “He is My first born son; shall I then bring him down in disgrace? Now, if I provoke Pharaoh [with the intention of bringing Jacob down], I will not bring him down with befitting honor. Therefore, I will draw his son [Joseph] before him, so he will follow despite himself.”

It is not by chance that this week’s parasha, parashat Shemot, opens with the declaration, Exodus 1:1, “V’ay’leh shemot b’nay Yisrael ha’bah’eem Mitzraymah,” And these are the names of the children of Israel, who are coming to Egypt. This statement is a word-for-word repetition of the first words of the verse found in Genesis 46:8, which describe the seventy souls who went with Jacob down to Egypt, after Joseph revealed himself. The verse in Genesis introduces the exile, as the family begins the process of descending to Egypt. With the opening of the book of Exodus, the narrative of the exile develops, until it ends with the miracle of the exodus and the giving of the Torah at Sinai.

In one of her exceptionally brilliant discourses found in Studies on Exodus, Professor Nehama Leibowitz, offers a compelling analysis of the role that exile plays in the history of the Jewish people.

Professor Leibowitz cites Professor Isaak Heinemann‘s introduction to the book of Exodus, in which Professor Heinemann draws a distinction between the scientific/historic approach to exile and the homiletic/Midrashic approach to exile. Science asks: What motivated Egypt’s persecution and enslavement of Israel? The Midrash asks: Why was Israel persecuted and enslaved more than any other nation in the world? Professor Leibowitz notes two distinctions between the questions. Science is concerned only with the first exile of the Jewish people to Egypt 3,500 years ago and seeks to determine, what was the immediate cause of the persecution? The Midrash wants to know the underlying reason for persecution and why there is a recurring pattern of exile that began with Egypt, but continues to our very day.

In her penetrating analysis, Professor Leibowitz asks: What was the reason for the people’s exile to Egypt? Citing the normative Jewish understanding of evil, Professor Leibowitz states, “Like all other calamities that have overtaken us, this exile too was a punishment for sin.”

What was the particular sin of the Jewish people in this case? Their desire to assimilate. As proof of the people’s massive assimilation, Professor Leibowitz notes that when the children of Jacob first entered Egypt, they declared to Pharaoh (Genesis 47:4) that they intended to stay in Egypt only temporarily, “La’goor ba’ah’retz bah’noo.” Eventually, however, Genesis 47:27 reports, “Vah’yay’shev Yisrael…vah’yay’ah’chah’zoo vah,” that not only did the sons of Jacob settle in Egypt, they took permanent foothold in Egypt!

Furthermore, the Midrash Rabba on the verse (Exodus 1:8), “Now a new king arose,” notes,

This teaches you, that when Joseph died, they [the Jews in Egypt] abrogated the rite of circumcision. They said, “Let us be like the Egyptians.” Because they did so, the Holy One, blessed be He, turned the love that the Egyptians bore them, into hatred…

The Midrash Yalkut Shimoni also confirms that the Jews of Egypt were entirely assimilated. On the verse (Exodus 1:7),”And the land was filled with them,” the Yalkut Shimoni explains that the amphitheaters and circuses of Egypt were filled with Hebrews.

The Ha’amek Davar points out cogently that, originally, Joseph had arranged for the Jewish people to reside in an exclusive ghetto area in the land of Goshen. The fact that during the tenth plague, the Al-mighty had to pass over the homes of the Hebrews that had the mark of the blood on the door, indicates that the Jews had forsaken Goshen, and were now entirely dispersed, living in Egyptian neighborhoods into which they had assimilated. Says the Ha’amek Davar, “the Israelites were punished for violating Jacob’s wish that they should live apart from the Egyptians in Goshen. The Midrash relates that they wished to be like the Egyptians. As a result of intermingling with them, they preferred to imitate them, and not be different. This is the reason why we [Jews] suffer persecution in every age, because we do not desire to keep apart from the nations.”

Nehama Leibowitz points out a keen difference between the approach of the Midrash and the approach of the Ha’amek Davar. According to the Midrash, the punishment that the Israelites experienced emanated directly from Heaven. G-d turned the love with which the Egyptians bore them into hatred. The Ha’amek Davar, who sees the punishment as a natural consequence of the people’s desire to assimilate, insists that the Jews brought the hardships upon themselves. The non-Jewish nations particularly resent the Jewish minority invading their economic and cultural life.

The approach of both the Midrash and the Ha’amek Davar, who see exile and persecution as a result of Jewish sinfulness, is of course, very troubling. However, there seems to be much in Jewish rabbinic literature to corroborate that assumption. The rise of Amalek is attributed to the rejection of Timnah, who came to each of the Patriarchs, pleading to convert. The cries of the Jews in the times of wicked Haman is attributed to the cries of Esau, who felt that he had been cheated of his birthright and his blessing. The forty years of wandering in the wilderness is directly attributable to the ten scouts who came back from Canaan with an evil report. The destruction of the First Temple is attributed to the violation of the three cardinal sins of idolatry, sexual immorality and murder. The destruction of the Second Temple is attributed to Sin’aht Chee’nam, wanton hatred among the Jewish people. What then could the Jewish people have possibly done to deserve the Holocaust? It is a question that we dare not ask, one that shakes the very foundations of our existential beliefs.

Fortunately, Professor Leibowitz offers a second approach, also culled from traditional sources. Professor Leibowitz refers to a number of Midrashim that regard the sufferings and the exiles of the Jewish people, not as punishment, but as a source of inspiration, one that serves a vital educational purpose. Citing the verse in Proverbs 13:24, “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” the Midrash in Shemot Rabba claims that whoever spares his son corrective punishment, drives him to delinquency and hates him. The fact that Absalom fell into evil ways is attributed to the fact that his father, King David, failed to correct him. Declares Professor Leibowitz, “Exile and suffering are here invested with the refining and purificatory character.”

Professor Leibowitz cites a host of Torah verses to substantiate this viewpoint: Exodus 22:20 declares that one must not wrong a stranger or oppress him. Exodus 23:9 demands that Jews not oppress a stranger. Deuteronomy 16:11 insists that a Jew must “Rejoice before the Lord…the stranger, a widow and fatherless.” Deuteronomy 5:14-15 declares that “your manservant and maidservant may rest like thee.” Deuteronomy 15:14-15 insists that a Jew must provide payment for a slave upon his release. Leviticus 25:43 prohibits one from being cruel to a servant. In each case, the Bible attributes the reason for this highly moral behavior to the fact that Jews must always remember that they were once strangers and slaves in the land of Egypt. All of these are lessons that the Jewish people were supposed to learn from their own bitter experiences in Egypt.

From this vantage point, suffering and exile must be seen not as a punishment for what the People of Israel have done, but as a lesson of what we must not do to others.

The question then remains: Is it not possible to learn these lessons through education, rather than coercion and suffering? Is it only possible to receive an ethical and moral education through pain and hurt?

This, of course, is a most germane question to ask, in light of the Newtown, Connecticut massacre. Must it take the pain of twenty dead children and six adults for our country to come to its senses? While intelligent people might argue over the merits of banning assault weapons, rifles and other instruments of wanton destruction, many will agree that our culture fails to sufficiently promote proper reverence for the sanctity of life. Without a fundamental appreciation for the sanctity of human life in our country, no amount of laws and firearms restrictions will effectively prevent such recurring tragedies. Our children are fed on a constant diet of murder and violence on television, in books, newspapers, video games, and violent sports, such as wrestling, football, boxing, and more. 85% of entertainment in America features sex or violence. Little or nothing is done to promote or profile good. Should we then be surprised that violence of this magnitude strikes?

If we see exile as a punishment, we need to mend our ways. If we see exile as an educational opportunity, we need to learn to appreciate its lessons. Can it be done without pain? At least according to the analysis of Nehama Leibowitz, apparently not.

Hopefully, we have already experienced the pain, and can now proceed to repair our society.

May you be blessed.