January 8th-9th, 1999
21 Teves, 5759
Whenever I hear about the birth of septuplets, or octoplets, I
immediately think of a verse at the beginning of this week's parsha: "The
Children of Israel were fruitful, teemed, increased, and became strong--very, very much
so; and the land became filled with them." (1, 7; Artscroll translation.) The
Midrash explains that the Jewish women in Egypt gave birth to six babies at a
time--corresponding to the six Hebrew words in the verse used to describe our rapid
multiplication. (This was a few millenia before fertility drugs were on the
And unlike multiple births nowadays, where the babies often don't live very long due to
their extreme frailty or incomplete development, the Jewish infants flourished: the
commentaries explain that they all were hearty and reached adulthood (see Rashbam;
Netziv), evidence of Hashem's special Providence governing our people. As the
Midrash Rabbah puts it, "Even though Yosef and his brothers died, their G-d didn't
die"--He was busy swelling the ranks of their offspring, ever watchful to fulfill the
promise He had made to the Patriarchs: "Your offspring shall be as the dust of the
Interestingly, it seems that this
intense population explosion of the Jews triggered the start of the Egyptian persecution:
the Midrash Tanchumah notes that immediately after the verse describing their increase
(quoted above), the Torah reports the rise of a "new king" who imposed hard
labor on the Jews. Ibn Ezra states that the express purpose of the servitude was to
limit our size as a people.
Was it our mere numbers that caused Egyptian enmity? It doesn't seem like the whole
story. After all, the Jews were the nation of Yosef, the savior of Egypt during the
famine. Could the Egyptians, in the space of so short a time, forget the gratitude
owed to their benefactor, Yosef, and his extended family? Although the answer is
probably, "yes"--let's be realistic about human nature, folks--, still one hopes
for some deeper (or more interesting) explanation for this disturbing account of ancient
Moreover, the Jews were presumably set apart from the rest of the Egyptian people, since
the Torah tells us at the end of the book of Bereishis that Yosef had intentionally
settled them in the region of Goshen--remote from the cultural influence of Egypt.
So, why should they have hated us so?
The Netziv, in Ha'Emek Davar, explains
that the Jews had, in fact, spread out beyond the borders of their ghetto in Goshen: when
the Torah says, "...and the land became filled with them," it means the whole
land of Egypt. Wherever they could buy up property, the Jews purchased; they came to
live among the Egyptian people, in the same streets and neighborhoods. (One proof he
offers is that Hashem, when slaying the Egyptian firstborn, "passed over" the
Jewish homes--clearly, their homes were intermingled.) As the Netziv starkly puts
"[The Egyptian oppression] came
about because they (the Jews) sought to go away from the desire of Yaakov, their father,
that they should live specifically in the land of Goshen in order that they should be
alone and separate from Egypt...and this is the reason that 'in every generation they rise
up against us to destroy us' [as it says in the Haggadah], because we don't want to be
like gerim [strangers] and separate from the nations." (1, 7)
In other words, the Egyptian
antisemitism--and its counterpart throughout our history--was not caused by our stubborn
clinging to peculiar ways and a belief in our special purpose as a people (though many a
Jew, wishing to blend in to the surrounding culture, has put forth this thesis); rather,
it is just the opposite: a response to our desire to forsake our separateness. When
we assimilate, therefore, we can expect the enmity of our neighbors.
Don't think this is just some weird black-hat idea. Our Sages, in Midrash Rabbah,
say it openly:
"...when Joseph died, they
abolished the covenant of circumcision, saying: Let us become like the
Egyptians. You can infer this from the fact that Moses had to circumcise them on
their departure from Egypt. As soon as they had done so, God converted the love with which
the Egyptians loved them into hatred..." (Shemos Rabbah: I, 8; Soncino
Looked at this way, antisemitism is not
at all a curse (though I am not proposing davening for it!); it sometimes serves as a
necessary, if painful, reminder of the fact that we are meant to be different from the
nations. Think of antisemitism as a wake-up call from Above, a chesed of Hashem to
keep us true to our Jewish selves.
I remember reading a New York Times Magazine piece a couple of years ago about a group of
young (non-Orthodox) Jewish intellectuals. One of them had just the same perception:
he was quoted as saying, "A little antisemitism is good for the Jews." I
give him credit; he grasped the truth.
"Behold, it is a nation that will dwell alone..." Those were the words of the
non-Jewish prophet, Bilaam, who clearly perceived our place in history, our role in G-d's
plan. To be friendly and benevolent to all, to be loyal citizens alongside our
non-Jewish neighbors--the Torah absolutely demands this of us. But all the while, we
must be a nation dwelling alone in our uncompromising commitment to the Torah and its
ways. Our "isolation" is actually for a universalistic purpose; it is the
means (the only means) for us to achieve that noble purpose of being a light unto the
We've forgotten this many times throughout the ages. May Hashem help us to remember
it, and take it to heart.
"Issues in Modern Jewish
A Five-Part Lecture Series Taught by Rabbi Yosef Edelstein, Director of Savannah Torah
The focus will be on key events and personalities--including great
rabbinic figures--in the Jewish world from 1750 to the present.
Dates and tentative topics:
TUESDAY, JANUARY 19TH: Chassidim vs. Mitnagdim/The Rise of
TUESDAY, JANUARY 26TH: Challenge of Reform and Other Ideologies
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 9TH: War and Genocide
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 23RD: The State of Israel--Birth and Beyond
TUESDAY, MARCH 16TH: The Modern Jewish Scene in America
All lectures will be held at the J.E.A., at 7:45PM. Call the J.E.A., at
(912) 355-0111, to register.
This series is sponsored by the J.E.A., Savannah Torah Education
Project (STEP), and Rambam Day School.
Insights Into Genesis
Insights Into Exodus
Edelstein is Director
of the Savannah Torah Education Project (STEP). Phone: 912-355-0157;
fax: 912-354-9923; e-mail: Yosef18@aol.com
Please be in
touch with us.
Our new website thanks to the good graces of the O.U. is: WWW.OU.ORG/TORAH/SAVANNAH.
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