OU Torah Insights ProjectParshat Shemot
Parshas Shemos begins with the verse, "And these are the names of the children of Israel who were coming (habaim) to Egypt." The Hebrew word, habaim, is the present tense. Why write, "who were coming to Egypt" when Jacob and his family had already come down many years before?
In response to this question, the Midrash comments that with the death of Yosef and the loss of his influence in Egyptian society, a new era began, a period of persecution. Indeed, it seemed, to the children of Israel, "as if they had entered Egypt that very day."
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zt"l, adds another dimension to the meaning of this verse. The use of the present tense reflects the attitude of the Egyptians to the Jews in their country. Although the Jews had been in Egypt for many years, in the eyes of the Egyptians they remained strangers who had come to Egypt that very day. The Jewish community was not an integral part of Egyptian society. They were aliens. This attitude of the Gentiles is the source of historical anti-Semitism.
However, there is a positive side to this galus experience of being a stranger in the country of our exile. It reflects our determination not to assimilate into the dominant society. By maintaining ourselves as habaim, as newly-arrived immigrants , we reject the temptations and the value system of the dominant culture and the pressures they exert on our Jewish identity, values and peoplehood.
We reject the claim of the anti-Semite that we are strangers in the land in the sense that we are not loyal to the distinctive ideology and principles of our adopted country. On the contrary, we are obligated to contribute to our host society as loyal and devoted citizens, and, indeed, we have contributed to the welfare of every country of our sojourn in the Diaspora.
Despite our loyalty, though, we remain a unique people with a chosen mission. In this sense, we are strangers in the land. We have arrived this very day. The children of Israel assert that Israel is a covenantal community, that Israel has a special relationship with G-d.
Did the Jew in Egypt fulfill this special role of habaim, of integrating into the society of his exile while resisting assimilation into the dominant culture? Unfortunately, our sages relate that only one-fifth of the Jews merited to leave Egypt as people of the covenant. Four-fifths succumbed and assimilated into the dominant Egyptian culture. Four-fifths of the Israelites perished in the plague of darkness because they had blackened the ideology of their forefathers.
As we enter the 21st century, contemporary American society reminds us of our Egyptian past. Assimilation and intermarriage are at historical highs. The lesson embedded in our parshah has not yet made its mark. Torah Jews, as the remnant of Israel must reach out to our co-religionists and teach them the lesson of habaim, of being strangers in the land, so that our Jewish future may be strengthened.
Rabbi Bertram Leff
Rabbi Leff is editor of Torah Insights.