Parshat Shemos 5770: Assimilation and the Evolution of Jewish Enslavement — Then and Now(?)

by Moshe Burt

To sufficiently comprehend the evolution of the enslavement of B’nai Yisrael in Mitzriyim, it would seem that one needs to comprehend the closed nature of the two preceding Parshiyot; the concluding posuk of Vayigash;

And Yisrael dwelt in the land of Mitzriyim in the land of Goshen, and they acquired property in it and… multiplied greatly

and the first posuk of Vayechi;

And Yaakov lived in the land of Mitzrayim for seventeen years…

We need to understand the gist of the Kli Yekar; that the Sh’vatim, the Am, knowing that they were to be in Mitzriyim for a definite period of time beyond their lifetimes thus perceived a permanence. Therefore, they adapted themselves to living in Mitzriyim long-term and were thus vulnerable to Mitzri “encouragement” to melt, to assimilate into Mitzri society, to work for the nation, etc. The B’nai Yisrael began to accumulate wealth, land, assets, material possessions as they grew in numbers from 70 souls to 600,000 during Yaakov’s 17 years in Mitzrayim, as stated in the Judaica Press Chumash volume 3 re: Parsha Vayechi.

With the passage of time, and with Yaakov and the brothers — the tribal heads all passing from the scene, the Am forgot about their true home in Canaan, in Eretz Yisrael, and became complacent in Mitzriyim. And with the passing of heads of B’nai Yisrael, the Am no longer retained an elevated status in the eyes of the Mitzriyim who quickly forgot how Yosef saved them from famine.

Last year at this time this author discovered a Sefer in the Shul’s bookcase; Ner Uziel: Perspectives on the Parsha, where Rabbi Uziel Milevsky z’l adds substantial clarity to the Jews’ evolution into bondage in Mitzriyim.

Ner Uziel on Parshat Shemos (p. 297-301) refers to Perek 1, posuk 7 which reads;

“The B’nai Yisrael were fruitful and they bred… they became so numerous that the land was filled with them.”

Rabbi Milevsky finds the Torah’s loshen for bred; “vayishretzu” disturbing. He notes that “vayishretzu” comes from the root word; sheretz = rodent, i.e. that;

“The Jewish people multiplied like rats.”

Rashi, on our posuk, notes that even with the miraculous birth rate of 6 children at a time, the Jews couldn’t have filled the land of Mitzriyim.

So why this loshen “vayishretzu”?

While the Sh’vatim lived, the Jews remained on Goshen and continued in the ways of their forefathers and were dedicated exclusively to Divine Service.

Following the deaths of Yaakov and the sons, the moral fabric began to unravel. The values of the forefathers eroded, particularly among the young and newly-married couples. They begin to venture beyond the pale of seperation from the Mitzriyim which was Goshen and beyond exclusive Divine service.

Rabbi Milevsky notes that the Egyptians of the time “were notorious anti-semites.

We know that the Jews gradually assimilated into Egyptian society and excelled in all fields of endeavor. This is what is implied by Perek 1, posuk 6;

“Yosef died, and all of his brothers and that entire generation.”

Rabbi Milevsky noted that traditional Jews bore little resemblance to their neighbors, i.e. dress, laws and a different language. As a result, one could use an old Aish HaTorah analogy; there was a “dislike for the unlike.”

He notes that some theorized that if they would only abandon their foreign beliefs (they maintained their unique dress, names and language) and melt into Mitzri society, the Mitzrayim would welcome them with open arms. They were bitterly disappointed when they found that the more they adopted Mitzri ways, the more they were hated.

Further, when the Jews excelled in their professional fields of endeavor such that everywhere the Mitzrayim turned, they found Jews, a perception developed that;

“…They became so numerous that the land was filled with them.”

And so Pharoah fed that perception.

Rabbi Milevsky cites a story to illustrate how such a perception develops.

A prominent Rabbi from the US travelled to Mexico City and was being driven by a Mexican cabbie. The Rabbi asked the driver how many people there were in Mexico City. The cabbie responded that Mexico City was the largest city in the world with a population of 20 million.

The Rabbi then asked him how many Jews lived there. The cabbie’s response; “Senior, there are muchos muchos Jews living there. (Rabbi Milevsky notes that there were 35,000 Jews there at the time. The cabbie added that “there are at least 4 to 5 million Jews.”

Rabbi Milevsky then brings out why the Mexican cabbie had that impression; Jews owned the apartment building where he lived, the surgeon who operated on his mother was a Jew, a Jew owned his bank — all of this fed the driver’s perception regarding the Jewish population in Mexico City.

Likewise, the Mitzrayim were convinced that Jews filled the country — thus the loshen “vayishretzu”.

Rabbi Milevsky then related that Hashem punished the B’nai Yisrael in accordance with their sin. Since they assimilated and abandoned the Jewish moral code of their Avos, either a new King took the throne who fidn’t know Yosef, or the same King pretended not to know Yosef.

How can this be? Referring back to the storyline of Duaf of Memphis, one of a series of stories — “Almost Midrash,” by Jay Shapiro;

“Yosef saved Mitzrayim and will go down in the annals of history.”

But how quickly they “forgot” Yosef.

Rabbi Milevsky notes that Yosef was to Mitzriyim as Abraham Lincoln was to the U.S. Such an influential person in a nation’s history is not easily forgotten. But Pharoah considered Yosef’s leadership and accomplishments as a blight on Mitzri history.

And so Pharoah schemed the enslavement of the Jews — mida keneged mida — to isolate the Jews from Mitzri Society. We have seen this same storyline play itself out in Jewish history again and again through modern-day in Chutz L’Aretz as millions of Jews to date have erred in choosing to melt into the society in which they live (actually; reside) and to accept what are often the distorted laws and mores of that society.

And are we watching the same Jewish historical storyline play out here in Israel? Are we all soo preoccupied with our individual needs and matzavim that we overlook V’Ahavta, L’Rei’echa, Kamocha; the needs of our fellow Jews in other religious sectors thereby leaving all of us prey, through lack of unity, to the divide-and-conquer modus operende of governance dedicated to the dismemberment and eradication of Jewishness, of Yiddishkeit from the minds, hearts and souls of Israelis?

May we, the B’nai Yisrael be zocha that our brethren — the refugee families from Gush Katif be permanently settled and be made totally whole, that our dear brother Jonathan Pollard, captive Gilad Shalit and the other MIAs be liberated alive returned to us in ways befitting Al Kiddush Hashem. May we have the courage to prevent the eviction of Jews from their homes and the handing of Jewish land over to enemies sworn to Israel’s and Judaism’s destruction and eradication. May we fulfill Hashem’s blueprint of B’nai Yisrael as a Unique people — an Am Segula, not to be reckoned with as with “the nations” and may we be zocha to see the Moshiach, the Ge’ula Shlaima, as Dov Shurin sings; “Ki Karov Yom Hashem V’Kol HaGoyim”, the Ultimate Redemption, bim hay v’yameinu — speedily, in our time”, — Achshav, Chik Chuk, Miyad, Etmol!!!

Good Shabbos!

Moshe Burt, an Oleh, is a commentator on news and events in Israel and Founder and Director of The Sefer Torah Recycling Network. He lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh.