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Toledot 5779-2018

NJOP stands in solidarity with the Squirrel Hill community in Pittsburgh and expresses its profound condolences to the members and families of the Tree of Life Congregation who lost their lives in the horrific Shabbat attack.

It is our hope that the outpouring of love and support from the broader Jewish community and from people of good will across the length and breadth of America, may serve as some small comfort as the community mourns the loss of precious lives and face the pain and suffering experienced by others at the synagogue.  Profound thanks to the members of the Pittsburgh Police Department who risked life and limb to save other potential victims from death and harm. May God grant comfort to the families who lost loved ones and a Refuah Shelayma, a speedy and full recovery, to all those who were injured in this terrible attack.

 

“The Dangers of Assimilation

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

 

In this week’s parasha, parashat Toledot, more of the personality of the highly “enigmatic” patriarch, Isaac, emerges.

Until now, much of Isaac’s life has been one of extraordinary challenge. Early in his life he was caught in the crossfire of the jealousies between his mother, Sarah, and her handmaiden, Hagar. It could also be that he was subjected to abuse (מְצַחֵק , M’tza’chek) by his older brother Ishmael (Genesis 21:9). As a young man, his father nearly sacrificed him.

Now, as a young married person, when faced with famine in the land of Israel, Isaac does what his father Abraham before him had done. Isaac goes down to Gerar, where he and his wife, Rebecca, are subjected to extreme scrutiny by the Philistine king, Abimelech.

After an uncomfortable encounter with Abimelech, Isaac settles in Gerar, where he meets unprecedented success as a farmer. His success enables him to acquire flocks and herds and many enterprises, raising the envy of the Philistines.

As a result of the resentment, all the wells that Abraham’s servants had dug were stopped up by the local Philistines and filled with earth. Eventually, Abimelech advises Isaac (Genesis 26:16): לֵךְ מֵעִמָּנוּ, כִּי עָצַמְתָּ מִמֶּנּוּ מְאֹד, “Go away from us, for you have become much mightier than we.” The commentaries interpret this to mean that Abimelech was saying that “You [Isaac] have become prosperous at our expense.”

Isaac moves to the valley of Gerar. There he digs new wells, calling them by the same names that his father, Abraham, had called them. But the herdsmen of Gerar are not happy, and claim that the water is theirs. Isaac keeps moving further away from the local people, eventually relocating in Rehovot, where his workers dig a new well that was not quarreled over.

When King Abimelech sees the unusual success of Isaac, whom he had earlier exiled from Gerar, he travels with Phicol, his general, to Isaac, to make a peace treaty with him in Beer-Sheba–ostensibly assuring the security of Isaac and his family. Scripture attests to this fact when it states (Genesis 26:31): וַיַּשְׁכִּימוּ בַבֹּקֶר, וַיִּשָּׁבְעוּ אִישׁ לְאָחִיו, וַיְשַׁלְּחֵם יִצְחָק, וַיֵּלְכוּ מֵאִתּוֹ בְּשָׁלוֹם , They awoke early in the morning and swore to one another; then Isaac saw them off, and they departed from him in peace.

The contemporary Bible commentator, Rabbi Mordechai HaCohen, asks the question: Why did Isaac move away from Abimelech just when conditions were favorable for staying, and after concluding a security covenant with the Philistine king? Rabbi HaCohen suggests that when Isaac was subject to harassment, he felt that he was in no danger of adopting the Philistinian ways and customs. But, now that he was secure and peace had come, he said to himself: “Who knows whether I can preserve my spiritual identity?”

Assimilation and intermarriage have long been a fixture of Jewish life. Tragically, millions of Jews have been killed by sword and other nefarious methods throughout the millennia. However, knowledgeable estimates suggest that many more Jews were lost due to assimilation and intermarriage than to persecution and murder. The well-known estimate of famed historian Paul Johnson, is that Jews constituted about 10% of the population of the Roman Empire in the time of Augustus, about eight million souls. According to natural birth rates, notwithstanding the pogroms and the murders, Jews today should number in the hundreds of millions, but do not, because of assimilation.

It is terribly painful to acknowledge the tragic truth that when Jews are persecuted, there are fewer losses. It is generally in the more open and enlightened societies that countless numbers of Jews are lost. The sword and the ghettoes, ironically, kept Jewish life intact, with the exception of eras of mass murder.

History records that, between the years 1812 and 1848, fully 85% of the Jewish community of Berlin formally underwent conversion to Christianity. Some scholars even suggest that had Hitler allowed the Jews of Germany to live in peace, they would have disappeared within a generation or two. That’s how profoundly assimilated they were.

With the intermarriage rates of non-Orthodox Jews in the United States today above 70%, we see that Jews are being lost not because they are hated. To the contrary, they are loved, and non-Jews are often delighted to have Jewish sons and daughters-in-law.

This is the challenge that we face today. If there would be peace between Israel and the Arabs, there will be significant assimilation. Even now, at a time of great enmity, Jewish-Muslim marriages, while rare, are not uncommon.

In most instances, it is more likely that those who live in tight-knit and highly-sheltered religious Jewish communities, even in large metropolitan areas, will be able to repel the tide of assimilation that prevails throughout the world today. But, even in those highly-sheltered communities, the rates of assimilation are climbing significantly.

When peace was made between him and the king of Gerar, Isaac realized that it was time to move away, to distance himself, so that he could maintain his strong Jewish identity and live a full Jewish life with intensity and passion. Contemporary Jews, may need to do the same to ensure their own continuity.

May you be blessed.