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Shemot 5761-2001

“The Not-So-Obvious Process of Enslavement”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Shemot, we begin our annual encounter with the story of the Egyptian enslavement of the Jewish people.

The Sons of Israel come down to Egypt as free people. They receive a royal invitation from Pharaoh himself, who in fact sends the royal “movers” to bring their families and belongings from Canaan to Egypt. The patriarch Jacob is welcomed at a special audience with Pharaoh himself, and the Sons of Israel are given the privileged status of royal shepherds. To top it all, the children of Israel are granted their own land, the land of Goshen, where they may live their unique Jewish life. After all, Jacob was quite concerned that his children would quickly assimilate if they came down to Egypt and lived among the Egyptians.

And yet, despite all the preventive measures–-we know that assimilate they did! We learn this from the festival of Passover, which literally means that G-d had to pass over the houses of the Jewish people so that the Angel of Death could kill the Egyptian first-born. Why would that be necessary? After all, the Jews lived separately from the Egyptians–in their own land of Goshen.

According to the Midrash, since the period of “enslavement” is calculated from the birth of Isaac, the number of years that the Jews actually dwelt in Egypt was 210 years. The number of years that the Jews actually performed “hard labor” was approximately 110 years. Obviously, during those 210 years, many Jews got tired of living in the Egyptian “Boro Park” and moved out of Goshen, to the more mainstream, upscale areas where they lived in closer proximity to the Egyptians. If you check carefully in this week’s parasha there is no mention in the entire parasha of any official decree formalizing the enslavement by Pharaoh. Perhaps, that is what is meant by the verse (Gen. 1:10), “Ha’vah nit’chak’mah lo,” when Pharaoh says: Come let us deal wisely with the Jews, he means: We need not directly enslave them. We can, after all, accomplish the same thing with subtlety and etiquette and emerge with our hands clean.

According to many commentators, the Egyptians employed a shrewd strategy, calling upon the civic sensitivities of the Jewish people to draw the Hebrews into the process of assimilation. Scripture informs us that the Jews built the great storehouses in the land of Egypt, Pitom and Ro’amses. Were they forced to build them? No such indication appears in the text. Perhaps, there was social pressure. Pharaoh probably said: “And so, my fellow Egyptians, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” And, as we know, our civic-minded Jews are always Johnny-on-the-spot to volunteer. And so it was. The ancient Hebrews give of their resources and their efforts to build this important civic project. They become in effect, more Egyptian than the Egyptians, setting a pattern which Jews were to follow throughout their history.

The Jews in Egypt said to themselves: We are after all acculturated, sophisticated Jewish Egyptians–the equivalent of today’s Jewish Americans. We no longer need to live in ghettos. Have no fear, Oh father, Jacob! Surely you have no doubt that we will be able to maintain our Jewish identities, even outside the Ghettos?! But, as we know, there is no truth to that position. Without intensive Jewish education and a commitment to Jewish rituals, Jewish identity quickly vanishes.

Eventually, the Jews do become physically persecuted slaves in Egypt, and are forced to do rigorous labor against their will. Yet the message of parashat Shemot is that the Jewish people probably became slaves long before the Egyptians enforced slavery upon them. Long before the back-breaking labor, the Sons of Israel become slaves to Egyptian culture. They become slaves to Egyptian fashions and Egyptian values. It was inevitable that these committed patriots would become so deeply involved politically, civicly and emotionally with Egypt that they would ultimately be unable to extricate themselves.

Is this what is happening to American Jewry today? I hate to spoil the party, but it seems to be so. If the recent surveys of American Jewry are correct, most American Jews have already defined down their observance and notion of Judaism. We know that American Jews are the least observant of all religious groups in America. Jews attend synagogue far less frequently than other religious groups attend their houses of worship. For most of American Jews, Jewish life in America has been in the process of decline for more than 50 years. It was inevitable that most Jews would eventually conclude that there is really nothing so terrible with intermarriage. The recent American Jewish Committee survey reports that a whopping 56% find nothing wrong with intermarriage and only a paltry 12% strongly object to it.

And so the bottom line is: You don’t need Pharaoh or taskmasters to be enslaved. Slavery can be the direct result of one fateful little word: “attitude.”

May you be blessed.