|Why did it take two years from the beginning of the Civil War for the Union to accept African Americans for full service? Racism still existed but they were able to set it aside for the bigger purpose of defeating the South. By the end of the war, even the South accepted slaves for service and agreed to free them if the South won the war. Once again, blatant racism didn’t dissipate but both sides were able to set it aside for what they perceived was a greater good. This is merely one example of many throughout history in which a basic phenomenon in human nature is demonstrated. People are willing to put aside hate, prejudice, and other negative feelings when their freedom or life is at stake.
With this in mind, it is hard to understand a Midrash based on the verse below in this week’s Parsha.
And it came to pass at midnight, that G-d smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the first-born of the prisoner in the dungeon. (12:29)
Why does the verse tell us that the plague affected prisoners in jail? If they were imprisoned, they did not take part in the enslavement, so why should they be punished? There’s a tradition dating from the Midrash—about 2,000 years ago—that says the following proposition was presented to the prisoners, “If the Jews are set free, you too will be free.” But the responded, “it would be better for us never to be released than to free the Jews.” The North and South were willing to sideline racism and accept, according to their way of thinking, lowly people in order to retain their freedom. When, then, didn’t the Egyptian prisoners sideline their Jew hatred for their own freedom? There are not too many things worse than being in prison, especially the dungeons of the ancient world. Most people would give anything for freedom but these Egyptians were different and that is the reason they too were punished with the plague of the firstborn. But how can we understand such a foolish decision?
About 100 years ago, a Rabbi in Russia addressed this question. Rav Zalman Sorotzkin (1881–1966), had lived in Russia under the Czars and communists, and eventually settled in Israel. His Torah commentary is unique because it shows parallels in history for many of the Torah’s stories and their application to the present day. He explains that there is a theme in history that the nations of the world (in whose lands we have lived) had an irrational hostility for their Jewish population. Jews had been exiled from every country in Europe during the Middle Ages, even though the Jews were not only loyal but also enhanced the country politically and economically. In modern history, the Germans lost some of their most essential resources—including some of their best scientists—because of illogical Jew hatred. Had they enslaved Jews, it would have been evil but logical—but using and losing valuable resources on a defenseless and emaciated population is simply foolish. (An entire book documenting the Nazi’s illogical motus operandi has been documented in the book Holocaust versus Wehrmacht: How Hitler’s “Final Solution” Undermined the German War Effort.)
What are we to do with this insight? For centuries, many Jews have believed the way to combat anti-Semitism is to embrace political ideologies that promised enlightenment, universality for humanity, and social justice. Although Jews joined these movements, they were never fully embraced by them. Under the communists, when Russian Jews— poets, academics, journalists, and dissenters—were sent to Siberia with other dissidents, they were mocked and mistreated by their fellow prisoners, who were seemingly part of the same counter culture. yet anti-Semitism and persecution still existed. Loyal assimilated German Jews, including WW I veterans who had earned an Iron Cross for bravery to the Fatherland, were not spared deportation to concentration camps. Rabbi Sorotzkin lived during that era and observed that although Siberia was historically and geographically distant from the prison in ancient Egypt, the dynamic was the same. No matter what Jews do, they are never fully accepted—even by their own comrades in arms.
Jews have tried ideologies, philosophies, and even converting to different religions in order to deal with anti-Semitism. Herzl thought the problem was that we don’t have our own land but history has shown that even having the State of Israel hasn’t curtailed anti-Semitism.George Santayana famously commented, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Why is it that Jews espouse beliefs that remove G-d and replace Him with secularism, which has never been sustainable—some people don’t learn from the past. Whether it’s an ancient Egyptian prison or the modern day attempt to destroy the most democratic and tolerant State in the Middle East, there is no logic to anti-Semitism.
A teenager named Anne Frank was bothered by this and concluded:Who knows it might even be our religion from which the world and all peoples learn good, and for that reason and only that reason do we suffer. We can never become just Netherlanders, or just English or representatives of any country for that matter. We will always remain Jews. (Diary of Anne Frank)
We have a mandate to transmit a message to the world; there’s a loving G-d who expects us to be models of good living for the rest of the world. The non-Jewish mid 20th century sociologist Ernest van den Haag wrote in The Jewish Mystique: “The Jews gave the world G-d and the world has never forgiven them.”
What should we do; should we change and give up our Jewish identity? Here’s a metaphor to describe that way of thinking. If you had a daughter with beautiful red hair who came home from school crying, saying the kids made fun of her hair, one of the worst things you could do would be to color her hair. By doing so, you would validate those who mocked her. What would wise parents do? Tell her about famous, intelligent, and beautiful women who had red hair and how it is a benefit, not a detriment.
When people go after us for what we represent, the reaction should not be to color our hair (i.e., assimilate and forget our unique Jewish identity). Instead, we should embrace the very thing they see special in us.
Here’s a novel idea, instead of giving up our Judaism, let’s learn about it and embrace our beauty. Everything else has failed, isn’t it worth a shot? (Sources: Shemos Rabbah 18:10, Oznayim l’Torah, Exodus 12:29)
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