5772 - #14




            Rabbi Uziel Milevsky, Ner Uziel, Shemos, The Gradual Decline of Jewish Identity attempts to explain how the status of the Jews in Egyptian society was able to fall to such an extent that they were eventually able to be enslaved by Pharaoh. The narrative of the Chumash text itself,1 of course, briefly tries to encapsulate what occurred, focusing on the change in the Egyptian leadership (Pharaoh) 2 and this leadership’s subsequent ability to change the general public’s attitude towards the Jews. The problem is that, while the verses outline in broad strokes what occurred, there is no indication of the subtle changes within the mindset of both the general Egyptian population and the Jewish population that allowed these changes to be manifested. From a nation that had the highest respect for Yosef, their Jewish leader, and by extension, his family, what happened that could trigger such a loss in perception that the Egyptian people could see this previously honoured group as deserving to be slaves? From being a respected sub-grouping within the nation, were there also workings within the Jewish population that could have somewhat assisted in the development of this subjugation? This, the text does not clarify and it is Rabbi Milevsky’s intention, applying midrashic sources, to do so.

            The simple answer to what occurred would, of course, be force and fear yet such a simplistic understanding of what happened would not seem to fit. From Shemot 1:10 it does indeed seem that Pharaoh did create a fear of the Jews within his people but, from the very same verse, it would also seem that the Egyptians also did not use direct force to subjugate the Jewish grouping. The verb nitchachma, ‘let us deal wisely’, implies the use of subtlety, the mind, by the Egyptians in their attempt to respond to this issue. The essential question that thus emerges, it would seem, is: how could the Jews have fallen for this, what we must describe as, a trick?3 The idea  that Pharaoh developed a fear of the Jews within his people to explain how the Egyptians turned against this honoured grouping may, though, demand the greater analysis. The Jews were respected because they were connected to Yosef, the very individual who saved Egypt from a devastating famine. As Rabbi Milevsky expresses it, trying to shift the Egyptian nation’s perception of Yosef would seem to have been similar to an attempt to try and change the American people’s perception of Abraham Lincoln; yet this is what Pharaoh attempted and actually accomplished. The essential question must be how. It perhaps could be understandable that the Jewish People fell for Pharaoh’s trick because there was no reason to suspect a trick. The Jews and the Egyptians were friends, compatriots. To understand what happened in Egypt, we must attempt to discover why the Egyptians no longer looked at the Jews in this manner.

            Rabbi Milevsky attempts to show how Egyptian society came to hate the Jews amongst them through an explanation of the paradoxical effect of assimilation. It would seem that as long as the Jews stayed in Goshen and kept to their distinct customs, they had no problems in Egypt. It was when they attempted to integrate into Egyptian society, believing such behaviour would further ingratiate them with the indigenous population that their troubles began. Egypt, according to Rabbi Milevsky, was the first case of what would become a seemingly age-old truism: rather than fostering positive relations, when Jews attempt to imitate the behaviour of and, thereby, further connect with a host population, the result is actually hostility rather than the expected camaraderie. The Egyptian feeling towards its Jewish population changed for the worse and this, Rabbi Milevsky maintains, was because of a decline in Jewish identity. What he still does not do is explain why this would paradoxically be so. Is it, also, really true that assimilation always breeds hostility while a maintenance of separation inherently will necessarily result in tolerance?

            It is difficult to contend that when Jews maintain their distinctive practices, with a resultant strong separation between them and the host population the result is always positive. The history of our people would seem to show otherwise. Many Jews sadly suffered because they were perceived to be, because of their distinctive behaviour and/or as they remained apart, strangers in their own land. Similarly, it is also difficult to maintain that assimilation will necessarily result in animosity. There are many intermarried couples who, I believe, would assert otherwise. Nevertheless, it does also seem to be true that a greater integration of Jews into society often did have disastrous results. On the surface, it would seem, sometimes integration works and sometimes separation works; similarly, sometimes integration yields negative results and sometimes separation yields negative results. It may be that different circumstances demand different responses; in some places, the better response may be greater integration, in other places, it may be greater separation. Perhaps, though, what we really first need to do is define what we mean by these terms ‘integration’ and ‘separation’.

            There are three possible understandings of the term ‘integration’. One is a total assimilation so that any identity of Jewishness is lost. Another involves a total adoption of the general mores and behaviour of the host society yet still accompanied with an assertion of a separate Jewish identity. The third decrees involvement in the general society but preserves a commitment not only to an identity but to the underlying Jewish values. Separation would thus be an extension of this position, maintaining that the only way to preserve these Jewish values is through non-involvement with the host society. The paradoxical response of hostility to integration may be specifically referring to the second case. In the first case of assimilation there eventually will not be hostility for there will eventually not be any Jews left to hate. In the latter cases where the focus is on values, hostility may still result but, at least, the battleground is articulated and there is a reason for asserting the distinction of being Jewish. A respect for a thoughtful, opposing viewpoint may also develop. It is the second case, though, where we find a group that is actually similar to the host population yet still wishes to declare themselves different that we may find the greatest problem. The Jews in Egypt began to act just like the Egyptians yet they still declared themselves to be unique. Hostility may be the natural response when we portray ourselves as members of a special club with exclusive membership yet behave sorrowfully just like everyone else.                                                                                                                    Rabbi Benjamin Hecht



1 Shemot 1:1-11.

2 Whether this change was actually real or just in temper and policy, see Rashi, Shemot 1:8.

3 There are actually many different understandings of what this trick was. The underlying basic theory, though, is that Pharaoh first drew the Jews, wishing to be good citizens, into the public service of construction. Once he already got them working, he then proceeded to increase the toil eventually resulting in their subjugation as slaves. See, further, Torah Shelaima, Shemot 1:10.

Nishma 2011

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