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Parshat Shmot, the first chapter of the Book of Exodus
This parsha is incredibly chunky, with loads of characters and stories.
There's the legacy of Joseph, a new Pharaoh, Shifra and Puah, Yocheved and
Miriam, Moses, Tziporah, Aaron and G-d. Lots and lots of material.
But what is this parsha about? As far as I can see, it's about the good and
bad sides of assimilation.
"Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph."
How is that possible? It might be possible to understand that this new ruler
of Egypt didn't know who Joseph was, but even that is a bit of a stretch.
Can you imagine George W. not knowing who David Ben Gurion was? Well, maybe
that's not so hard to imagine, but you get the point! Rashi explains this
verse to mean that Pharaoh pretended not to know about the good merits of
Joseph and the positive legacy he left for the Hebrew nation. What kind of
circumstances could have led to the Egyptian people actually believing that
this Pharaoh did not remember Joseph or his legacy?
Joseph built a reputation for himself and the people he represented that
allowed them to have a safe place in Egyptian society. These many
generations later a ruler "arises" and all of a sudden he doesn't know about
this legacy, and instead feels that the Hebrew nation is a potential threat.
It is possible to speculate that what may have happened here is that the
Hebrew people became too comfortable in their surroundings. They had been
set up in a good situation where they were able to take advantage of a
progressive, profitable culture. It must have been a good time for them.
They were safe and free and able to mix in Egyptian society at their will.
Many generations after this freedom is established, a ruler takes power and
has a very different view of this growing minority. Out of the fear of this
minority, Pharaoh goes through a series of instructions to various
underlings, as to how this minority will be diminished.
What I see in this story is that no matter how much the Hebrew people
thought they were part of Egyptian culture, there was still an element of
society that viewed them as "other." They were naive to think that they were
truly part of this foreign culture. Their naivete made them lazy and
comfortable. This laziness is not as much a question of their holding on to
their faith as it is a question of them clearly exhibiting their identity in
a positive light. There was no identifiable leader of this minority group.
When Pharaoh feels threatened by their growth he has no one person to talk
to or threaten . . . he must threaten their entire existence.
To me, this is the negative side of assimilating. The thought that one can
maintain their beliefs and still be part of the dominant culture is true, I
believe that. The threat, however, is that you really are never part of that
dominant culture. Recently I learned in relation to the Joseph story with
his brothers, that one of the interesting themes is the idea of defining
your own reality. The way Joseph treats his brothers when they come down to
Egypt is, in a sense, showing them that the reality they have been living is
not the true reality. Similarly, here the Hebrew people thought they were
living a great, assimilated life, but in reality they were always viewed as
"others" or "strangers".
The flipside of assimilation, in this story is Moses. Moses is a true
outsider. He's born of a Hebrew woman, Yocheved, but he's raised as an
Egyptian. He has Hebrew blood in him though, and that comes out when he sees
Hebrew slaves being abused. Moses kills the taskmaster and ends up having to
flee his home out of fear for his life. He ends up in Midian, where he's
given a wife as a gift for being a nice guy, who happens to be the daughter
of a Midianite price.
So here's this story of arguably the most prominent Jewish leader in the
Bible, who grows up living as an Egyptian, marries a Midianite woman and
then argues with G-d about going back to save his people. It sounds like an
episode of Oprah!
What is the lesson in assimilation though, as compared to the story of the
legacy of Joseph. To me, I see Moses' life as a story of faith and passion.
Moses is not living the life of a Hebrew, but he has it in him. He has this
Jewish flavor to him. He's a cultural Jew, and a proud one. He is connected
to his people for reasons he may not fully understand. He is passionate
about his beliefs and he fights for justice. He does this all while living
in an Egyptian palace and then living in a completely non-Hebrew
environment. Moses' spiritual isolation actually strengthens his resolve
instead of softening it. His faith in his belief grows by being isolated and
assimilated. He knows inside who he is and he is always willing to fight for
Until G-d asks him to.
This is a separate issue, but a fascinating one as well . . . the whole idea
of Moses' style of leadership. Why is he so reluctant? Why is G-d so
patient? Totally fascinating stuff, but too much to go into here and now.
The relevant issue is that Moses' reluctance is not a question of his
disbelief in "the cause" but in his abilities and his vision of how he would
be perceived by the Egyptians and the Hebrew slaves.
So what can we learn from all of this. There's the issue of assimilation
being a good and bad thing. The idea that we, as a minority, can strive to
be accepted and to live safely amongst a variety of majorities, but that we
should not become lazy and content. Our perception of the reality in which
we live is probably very different than the way reality actually is. Reality
is really a matter of perspective.
The other important point I see in this parsha is to not take people at face
value and to also assume the best in them. If Moses was in a class or a
group that anyone of us were in, what would we think of him. We'd probably
put him in a category of intermarried and lost to the Jewish people. G-d
teaches us a great lesson in tolerance and understanding the intent of a
person, not just their actual physical reality as we see it. There are a
number of reasons why Moses was in the situation he was in when G-d called
him. The important thing was that G-d looked inside to the person that Moses
really was, not merely the physical situation he was in. It's a good lesson
in giving people the benefit of the doubt and assuming the best. I heard
another great thought recently which I think fits well . . . If you treat
someone like a poet they will act like one. (that's a paraphrase!). Point
is, people have the potential to be whatever we allow them to be.