Parashat Shemot: Language, Dress, Names as a prescription for nationhood

We were led out of Egypt because we kept three things intact: our name, our clothing, and our language.

We all know this bit of Midrash.  No doubt some of us have used it it at one time or another to explain why we hold onto this, that, or the other odd custom. But where does it come from?

The ADDeRabbi has two great articles delving into this question here. His conclusion? The well-known “midrash” is actually a distillation of two different midrashim–one from ViYikra Rabba, the other from Pesikta Zutrata. In fact, each of these midrashim brings a different lesson. VaYikra Rabba speaks of reasons the Israelites merited redemption from Egypt:

Because of four things Israel was redeemed from Egypt: They didn’t change their names or their language, they didn’t speak lashon ha-ra, and none of them was promiscuous.

Meanwhile the Pesikta gives an explanation of what it means to be a distinct nation:

And there they became a nation – this teaches that the Israelites were distinct there, in that their clothing, food, and language was different from the Egyptians’. They were identified and known as a separate nation, apart from the Egyptians.

But as R’ Fischer explains here, these two midrashim were combined in the ethical will of the Chatam Sofer, who singled out only three factors as crucial to maintaining Jewish survival: clothing, language, and names. However, the Chatam Sofer did not link these things to the survival of the Israelites in Egypt at all. It was his own generation, and their descendants, that he was worried about.

But why these three things?

A prescription for Jewish continuity

I would argue that in singling out these three things, the Chatam Sofer was expressing a deeper insight into the sociological workings of exile. We naturally connect his insight to the Egyptian experience, for textual and cultural reasons, but it’s also true that the Egyptian experience makes a good template for exile in general.

R’ Samson Rafael Hirsch wrote that the Egyptian exile included three phases, each leading inexorably to the next: Gerut (the fact of being foreigners); Avdut (slavery); Inui (torture, degradation). Rav Hirsch saw these stages as being on a causal continuum, one leading inexorably to the next: One who is a foreigner may be singled out for persecution. Political contingencies may then lead the persecution to become institutionalized; the foreigner is dehumanized and gradually stripped of his rights. The next stage will inevitably be cruelty, due to the dehumanization of “the other”. (R’ Hirsch died fifty years before the shoah, and yet he describes what led to it with chilling insight).

Now pair off these three phases of exile against the three behaviors chosen by the Chatam Sofer:

  • Gerut. We are foreigners. All right, let us take pride in ourselves, in our history, and in our mission. We refuse to give up our Hebrew names, full of meaning and history. Yes, they single us out as Jews, but they are also a link to previous generations.
  • Avdut. We may be slaves, but let us not surrender our honor. Let’s not “sell ourselves to the highest bidder”. We can metaphorically, “keep our clothes on” and resist the temptation to do what a free man would be ashamed of doing in order to buy our way out.
  • Inui. We face torture. We will do anything to gain release. We use our tormentor’s language in an attempt to communicate with him, to try to tell him we are human. It may or may not work. But let us not let the conquerors’ language entirely crowd out our own. Let us not forget our own habits of thought, our values, our prayers. Our language is our last link with our inner selves. If we have endured terror and pain, we may have to fight our way back to self-expression. It can be an uphill battle. But, oh! what a victory when we realize that we have won through!

And so, each of the Chatam Sofer’s “identity factors” become a “remedy” for that stage of our exile. Unconsciously perhaps, we reverse-engineer the midrash, applying the Chatam Sofer’s filter to the earlier midrashim on survival in Egypt. But perhaps this isn’t so inappropriate.  In saying that these three things somehow set the stage for redemption we are stating a tautology, or at least a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we resist assimilation, we live long enough–as a distinct people–to make it to redemption.

But why is all this important? Why strive to remain a separate people at all? Perhaps because our experience of exile and slavery in Egypt gives us something that humanity needs!

About the Author
Yael Shahar has spent most of her career working in counter-terrorism and intelligence, with brief forays into teaching physics and astronomy. She now divides her time between writing, off-road trekking, and learning Talmud with anyone who will sit still long enough. She is the author of Returning, a haunting exploration of Jewish memory, betrayal, and redemption.
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