Yom Chamishi, 18 Iyyar 5779
Lag B Omer Thursday, 23 May 2019
Parashat Shemot 2013 (2)

Parashat Shemot
Cantor Gershon Silins

20 December 2013

The Torah portion for this week, Shemot, begins the book of Exodus (also called Shemot). It starts with a recapitulation of the familial and tribal organization of our people as they fled famine in Canaan as economic refugees, to join Joseph, their successful relative who had made good in Egypt, the superpower of their time. Presently, Joseph dies, along with the whole generation that followed him down to Egypt. And a new king arises in Egypt, who does not know who Joseph was. An interesting transformation occurs here: the descendants of Jacob are described as multiplying almost the way one describes insects or vermin; “the Children of Israel proliferated, swarmed, multiplied and grew more and more.” They become, not individual members of a family, with a history and significance attributable to them by name, but also not yet a distinct people. They become a swarming, threatening, unassimilated foreign body in the midst of the dominant population, whose members are called Egyptians. And gradually, our people, originally “they,” become “it,” a single mass of people that can be marginalised by the government with little fear of repercussion. During their time of living in Egypt, long enough for the immigrant generation to grow old and die, they become a distinct minority within the culture, but they lose the privilege that previously came to them through their connection to Joseph. The text does not tell us what maintained their distinctive minority status, but the opening passage hints at one element: they had foreign names, and later in the story we will see that they continue to worship differently from their neighbours. When Pharaoh decides to deal “shrewdly” (as the text tells us) with them, they have already become distinctive enough that they can be turned into an underclass, ripe for oppression.

How could the descendants of Jacob have become, on the one hand, a familiar element of society, established over many generations, while on the other hand, never cease to be “strangers”? The text does not reveal the cause, but it is our story, and it is a story which has repeated many times in our history, and which we see in immigrant communities the world over. And though we are not alone as a people in being singled out, stigmatized and oppressed, we have the distinction of being intensely aware of it as a people, and taking it as a lesson in how we deal with others.

Among the oppressive acts our ancestors in Egypt were subjected to, the murder of newborn boys stands out, as does the resistance of the midwives, Shifra and Puah. Our tradition asks, were these heroic women part of our people? And there is a great temptation to claim them as our own. But, although there is some debate about it, the general consensus is that they were not part of the community of the descendants of Jacob: how could Pharaoh expect that the midwives would murder babies of their own people? It seems that our very survival was made possible by the acts of people who were likely outsiders to our group; for whom we would have been strangers; despite the blandishments of the powerful, they recognized that what was asked of them was wrong, and at significant risk to themselves, refused it.

This awareness of our biblical history transcends the various attachments (or lack of them) that modern Jews have to Jewish identity. As Jews in today’s society, we might have distinctive names that mark us out amidst the general population, we might have distinctive dress or visible identifying customs, or we might have none of these things, but still we have the intergenerational memory of our families having assimilated into the larger culture, finally distinctive, perhaps, only to ourselves. But still we know. We know that Jews in Germany were completely embedded in German society, fighting its wars and advancing its culture, until suddenly we were strangers again; and this has been our story in many countries around the world. Modern, secular, assimilated Jews are in a position to ask, “what does Jewish identity mean to me? What do I get out of it that I don’t already get from being a member of the wider society?” And the answer might not be obvious until we think about this one aspect of our lives in the larger society: we know the heart of the stranger. It is through this awareness that we see other cultures that take that same foreign role in our communities that we once had. The dismissive stories we hear about immigrant groups come up against the dismissive stories we have heard about our own people, and our history requires us to look again.

Later in Exodus, in Chapter 23:9, we are commanded, “you shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the Land of Egypt.” The commandment comes from God, but it is the knowledge of the heart of the stranger that gives it force, and it comes from our own experience as a people, first established here, in this week’s portion. We are not permitted to forget.