By Lawrence F. Layfer, Guest Torah Columnist
Torah Portion: Shemot (Exodus 1:1−6:1)
And the Egyptians made the children of Israel to serve with rigor, and made their lives bitter…Exodus 1:13-14
The book of Genesis is concerned with creation, a record not only of physical creation, but also of the Creator and His desires for His creations. His special love for humans is shown in how He creates us: instilled in each person is to be the “breath of G-d,” an ill-defined entity called “soul,” an invisible spiritual aspect meant to drive behaviors that reflect this special gift. Genesis therefore makes us privy to the emotions and motivations that drive the first generations of individual humans, in order that we learn how the holy in us can be enhanced or corrupted. In contrast to Genesis, the book of Exodus has as its focus collections of individuals, and so is about nation building. Nations can also have “souls,” their behavior shaped by the character traits its citizens collectively choose to demonstrate.
The first chapter in Exodus opens with two nations, Israel and Egypt, both at a point in time when choices will define their character for generations to come. They have been good for each other to this point. Israel’s son provided Egypt with a way through difficult economic times, and Egypt responded by being a safe haven for Israel during years of famine. For centuries they have lived in harmony near each other. During this time Israel has grown from seventy to nearly a million people, and Egypt has become fearful of such a large collection of unassimilated non-Egyptians within and on its border. Is the fear real, or is it an instilled fear used by leaders for political expediency? We are not told. We do know Egypt’s response: it isolates, suppresses and contemplates annihilation of Israel.
In Israel’s pain we are told she “cried unto the Eternal, the G-d of our fathers, and the Eternal heard our voice, saw our affliction, our sorrow, and our oppression,” and was spared and liberated, and Egypt decimated in the process. From this point on, beyond gratitude for our salvation, Israel as a nation will be defined by its reaction to both Egyptian actions and G-d’s grace.
Here is how one rabbi sees the event imprinted into our national consciousness: “The foundation of our society is defined by the way we treat those who have less power than us. The weak, the orphan, the stranger among us are among those whose distress G-d takes note, as it is said: ‘For I shall surely hear their cries.’ We are taught that being made in G-d’s image, we are to imitate G-d’s actions. The verses have been arranged in an order that seems to develop a theme: G-d loves the stranger, and demonstrates this by giving them food and clothing, therefore you should love the stranger, as it is our calling to imitate G-d. You should know this to be a truth because you were a stranger in the land of Egypt, and therefore know how it feels to be a stranger. You should therefore not wrong the stranger, nor oppress them, but rather learn to love them like a brother, and treat them as you would one of your own tribe.”
He continues: “You should follow the same guidelines for behavior towards them as you would your own: the help available to the poor should also be available to them, like the gleanings of the field, or free loans, or the laws of employer-employee relations. The legal system is there for them as well as for you. Remember, you are nothing more than strangers on the land in G-d’s eyes. He vacated the land of its past inhabitants and gave it to you not in your merit, but in their failure to follow His laws, including those of the stranger. As you treat the stranger, so He will treat you, measure for measure. If you drive the stranger from your land, or fail to make it hospitable for them, so may it be done to you.” So what Egypt violently rejected, we embraced, and through these words the world was given a standard by which to measure itself.
Rabbi David Wolpe wrote: “retelling a story that has propelled the identity of an ancient people, who began as idol worshippers, then slaves, who fled with nothing into the desert, and much to the dismay of the majority of the planet, came to have a major impact on the ethics and laws and values of humanity ever since. The ideas of the past become the truths of the future because, whether we can see or prove them at the time, when adopted by populations, they become the reality, the “truths” of that population. Now that can go both ways – the ideas can be built on fairness and freedom, or they can become a distortion of those values, and twisted into a narrow, ideology that holds bigotry, racism, social intolerance – the denigration of entire populations as less than human – very close to the surface. That was the ‘truth’ of the Holocaust, and we know that it didn’t end there.”
In demonstrating this standard all nations are challenged every generation. Economic and physical fears of immigrant populations, which can be real, must be balance against the tendency towards xenophobia that turns a deaf ear to the cries of suffering. For many nations currently, ours included, we again face difficult choices. Stephen Jay Gould wrote: “the tragedy of human history lies in the enormous potential for destruction in rare acts of evil, not in the high frequency of evil people. Complex systems can only be built step by step, whereas destruction requires but an instant.” So it may be with the character of nations. Words must by chosen carefully, decisions must distinguish between the dangerous and the downtrodden, between those who seek to destroy us and those who seek to join us, between the eradication of evil in our midst and the better angels of our nature. Our Creator will insist on nothing less. So should we.
Dr. Lawrence Layfer is Emeritus Professor at Rush Medical College and former Chair of Medicine at NorthShore-Skokie.