J.J Gross

Parshat Shemot: The dialectic of diaspora history

“The Jews are fruitful and they swarm and multiply and have gotten very strong and the land is full of them”

Were we to come across an anonymously posted statement like this today we would assume it came from the pen of a vicious Jew hater, a David Duke or some other Holocaust denying latter-day Nazi.

In fact, however, it is the Torah’s description of the Israelites in Egypt:

וּבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל פָּר֧וּ וַיִּשְׁרְצ֛וּ וַיִּרְבּ֥וּ וַיַּֽעַצְמ֖וּ בִּמְאֹ֣ד מְאֹ֑ד וַתִּמָּלֵ֥א הָאָ֖רֶץ אֹתָֽם:
The children of Israel were fruitful and swarmed and increased and became very very strong, and the land became filled with them.
(Exodus/Shemot 1:7)

If this does not sound especially flattering, perhaps that was the Torah’s intention. As has often, if not always, been the case in our troubled diaspora wanderings, we Jews did very well for ourselves in Egypt, perhaps too well for our own good. We let ourselves get comfortable. We invested in real estate (after all what can be more certain than real estate.) We built the most advanced hospitals in which to birth our many babies. We lived in the best neighborhoods. We sent our precious darlings to the finest universities. La dolce vita.

Barely three verses later the shoe drops, as indigenous Egyptians realize these foreigners who practice a different religion and worship a different deity are doing far better than themselves.

הָ֥בָה נִתְחַכְּמָ֖ה ל֑וֹ פֶּן־יִרְבֶּ֗ה וְהָיָ֞ה כִּֽי־תִקְרֶ֤אנָה מִלְחָמָה֙ וְנוֹסַ֤ף גַּם־הוּא֙
עַל־שׂ֣נְאֵ֔ינוּ וְנִלְחַם־בָּ֖נוּ וְעָלָ֥ה מִן־הָאָֽרֶץ
Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they increase,
and should war occur, they might join our enemies and
wage war against us and depart from the land.
(Exodus/Shemot 1:10)

These Jews have international connections, real or imagined. They can’t be trusted.

Of course, by now most of these Jews don’t really worship any deity. They expend fortunes on attempts to banish G-d from the public sphere. They avoid taking up arms with which to protect themselves, let alone the greater society, believing they are protected by their material success.

And then a toxic envy among the general populace unleashes a virulent backlash, resulting in appropriation, ghettoization, banishment, even extermination.

In the opening verses of Exodus/Shemot the Torah is providing a dialectical template, the inevitable cause and effect that will define Jewish life in the diaspora. The only things that can thwart this inevitability are either willful economic failure and underachievement – something we Jews are incapable of – or an ability to read the handwriting on the wall while there’s still time to get out. And yet, when the message is up there in bold type, the People of the Book suddenly become as illiterate.

These days everyone is wringing their hands over the proliferating Jew hatred in the United States, in Canada, in England, in Australia, in France, in – surprise, surprise – Germany. What we’re hearing from the haters is literally how the Jews are swarming and multiplying and getting too strong and the land is full of them — especially the land of Wall Street and the land of Hollywood.

Religious Jews continue to mouth empty daily prayers: וְתֶחֱזֶֽינָה עֵינֵֽינוּ בְּשׁוּבְֿךָ לְצִיּוֹן בְּרַחֲמִים. May our eyes behold Your return to Zion in mercy. And they chant “next year in Jerusalem” at the conclusion of Yom Kippur and the Passover Seder, even as neighbors are being attacked on the streets, and the universities to which they send their children are fomenting Jew hatred on a scale not known since Germany in the 1930s.

One might think diaspora rabbis would make some effort to alert their students and congregants. But business is business. A rabbi’s business is his yeshiva in America or his synagogue in Toronto. Encouraging his people to get out wouldn’t be good for business. There’s no parnassah in empty pews or a vacant Beit Midrash.

Instead they plug their ears and blindfold their eyes, leading their congregants and acolytes astray precisely by inducing them to stay where they are.

One need not be a prophet to see how this all ends. The Torah describes it perfectly. The Jews had no business remaining in Egypt. They knew that Joseph wanted his remains repatriated to Israel. They were fully aware of the fact that their homeland was just a camel drive away. They figured there was time, that they could always go home, just not yet, not while they were doing so well. The real estate business was booming. The stock market was going through the roof. The law firms were busier than ever. They had an Anti Defamation League to protect them. This was no time to head back home.

And the rest is history, And history. And history. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, it was ‘deja Jew’ over and over and over again.

For my past essay on Parshat Shemot please go to: 

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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