Rabbijn Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo (1946) werd geboren in Amsterdam en woont sinds 1977 in Israël. Als kind van een Portugees-Joodse vader en een niet-Joodse moeder heeft hij een lange weg afgelegd. Op zijn 16e is hij ‘uitgekomen’ (Joods geworden) bij Chacham Salomon Rodrigues Pereira. Jaren later haalde hij zijn rabbijnentitel aan de orthodoxe Gateshead Yeshiva. In Jeruzalem richtte hij de David Cardozo Academy op. Rabbijn Lopes Cardozo publiceert regelmatig en neemt daarbij geen blad voor de mond.
The Jews’ most formidable enemy in Biblical times was the nation of Amalek. This nation was, and symbolically still is, the personification of evil, brutality, racism and anti-Semitism. Amalek is seared into the Jewish consciousness as the unprecedented enemy of the People of Israel after their exodus from Egypt. What revealed Amalek’s moral bankruptcy was not only that they dared to fight the Israelites but that this evil nation attacked the Israelites from the back, focusing on the weak and tired people. (1)
In later days, it was Haman the Amalekite, known from the Purim story, who once again displayed the evil intentions of this nation. Only through a miracle was Israel saved from the hands of this wicked person.
Who was Amalek? The Torah tells us that the first Amalek was the son of Esav’s son Eliphaz. He was the eponymous ancestor of the Amalekite people. Eliphaz took a concubine by the name of Timna, who then became pregnant and gave birth to Amalek. (2) This means that Amelek was a descendent from Yaacov and Rivka!
The Talmud inquires why Timna married Eliphaz and provides us with a stunning explanation: “Timna desired to become a (Jewish) proselyte, so she went to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, but they did not accept her. As a result, she went and became a concubine to Eliphaz, the son of Esav, saying: ‘I would rather be a servant to this (Jewish) people than a mistress of another nation.’ From her Amalek, who afflicted Israel, was descended. Why so? Because they should not have rejected her.” (3)
This Talmudic statement is difficult to understand. It is, after all, unclear why the forefathers refused to take her under their wing and why they did not allow her to join the Jewish people, especially when we know that they went out of their way to convert as many people as possible. (4) Furthermore, one would expect the Talmud to justify the decision of the three forefathers; instead, the Sages rebuke the Patriarchs for their failure to accept her for conversion. The Sages’ commitment to truth exceeded their love for the Patriarchs. This is unprecedented. They could have suppressed the story, or they could have stated that Timna was indeed unworthy. The fact that they did not do anything of that sort proves their integrity and uncompromising commitment to truth.
We know of no other tradition that has shown such integrity when dealing with its heroes.
What is even more surprising is that they considered the Patriarchs’ refusal to accept Timna into Judaism as the prime reason why Israel would later be afflicted by the offspring of the first Amalek.
This reminds us of a statement made by Ramban when he discusses the reasons why the Arab nations have exhibited so much hostility toward the Jewish people. When Hagar became pregnant from Avraham and subsequently looked down on Sarah (who could not become pregnant), Sarah complained to Avraham about her. “Then Avraham said to Sarai: ‘Behold, your maid is in your hands; do to her that which is good in your eyes.’ Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she (Hagar) fled from her.” (5) Ramban’s comment is most telling: “Sarah, our mother, sinned in dealing harshly (with Hagar) – and Avraham, too, by allowing her to do so. God heard her (Hagar’s) suffering and gave her a son who was destined to be a lawless person, who would afflict the seed of Avraham and Sarah with all kinds of suffering.” (6)
In later days, it was Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever, rabbi of Bialystok and one of the great leaders of the Hibbat Zion movement, who made a similar comment when the Turkish government was about to banish from the Jewish settlements those Russian Jews who had moved to the country but had not taken Ottoman citizenship. He cried out and said that it is because of ‘Drive out this handmaiden (Hagar) and her son’ (7) that the Muslims – the children of Yishmael son of Hagar – would now cast out the sons of Sarah from their land.
Once again we are confronted with an unbending commitment to truth. Even when running the risk of putting our spiritual heroes in a compromising light, the Sages did not shrink from criticizing the Patriarchs and Matriarchs when they felt the need to do so. And once again we hear a daring statement that because of this, Jews still encounter hostility from their enemies thousands of years later.
On another occasion, the Sages again spoke of the injustice done to the ancestors of Haman. They stressed that much of Haman’s hatred for Jews resulted from the way Yaacov had dealt with his brother Esav. On the words in the Megillah, “And Mordechai understood all that was done; and Mordechai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth with ashes; and he went out into the midst of the city and cried a loud and bitter cry,” (8) the Midrash Rabbah dares to make the following observation: “One bitter cry did Yaacov cause Esav to cry (after he had stolen the blessings from Esav), as it says: ‘When Esav heard his father’s words, he cried an exceedingly loud and bitter cry’, (9) and it was paid back to him [Yaacov] in Shushan when his offspring [Mordechai and the Jews] cried a loud and bitter cry [because of the great trouble that Haman, the offspring of Amalek and Esav, caused the Jews].”
This may have been the reason why the Sages declared that some descendants of Haman taught Torah in Bnei Brak, (10) and some later authorities felt that one could perhaps accept members of the nation of Amalek as converts. (11) Somehow, they felt that not all members of Amalek were totally evil; nor were the people of Israel completely blameless.
Why, indeed, did the Sages emphasize the injustice by our forefathers? Why not keep quiet? They certainly didn’t want to justify the anti-Semitism of the Amalekites or the Arab nations. Nor did they wish to embarrass the Patriarchs, knowing quite well that they were men of great spirituality.
They were fully aware of treading dangerous ground when they showed a soft spot for Amalek. But after all was said and done, they took the plunge. A risky balancing act.
I believe that a careful look in the Torah may provide us with the answer. The Torah demands of the Jews: “You shall erase the memory of Amalek from beneath the heavens. You shall not forget.” (12) This commandment seems to be a paradox: How can we erase the memory of Amalek if we are not allowed to forget what he did?
However, it is very possible that the Torah hints here not only to the monstrous deeds of Amalek, but also to the injustices that were done by our forefathers when dealing with Esav and Timna. “Blot out the memory of Amalek” may quite well mean that we are obligated to uproot from within ourselves the ways in which our ancestors dealt with the ancestors of Amalek. “Do not forget” that this behavior was unjustified and consequently caused ongoing pain to this people and consequently to the People of Israel.
In other words, the Torah teaches us to erase Amalek’s memory by doing everything in our power not to give cause to unwarranted feelings within ourselves toward nations and people. We create our own enemies, and we Jews have to teach ourselves and others to prevent this by all means.
This, however, cannot be done once and for all. It is a constant demand that should never be forgotten.
The earlier critical observations by our Sages are therefore most crucial. By emphasizing the injustices done by our forefathers, and their disastrous repercussions, they gave us the means to fulfill the mitzvah of blotting out Amalek’s memory and paradoxically never forgetting what they did to us. Not only because they are our arch-enemies, but also because we should not give cause to bring them into existence.
While the sages did surely not want to fully justify Amalek’s or the Arab’s animosity towards the Jews, they made it abundantly clear that our forefathers did not behave with impunity. They carried a great amount of accountability in this most unfortunate situation.
Finally it is worth noting that, like in the case of Timna, not accepting converts by being too demanding and overzealous may lead to major disasters.
The Israeli Chief Rabbinate or any other rabbinate should take notice!
(1) Devarim 25: 17-18.
(2) Bereishit 36: 4, 12.
(3) Sanhedrin 99b.
(4) Rashi on Bereishit 12:5.
(5) Bereishit 16:6.
(6) Ad loc.
(7) Bereishit 21:10.
(8) Megillat Esther 4:1-2.
(9) Bereishit 27:34.
(10) Sanhedrin 96b.
(11) See Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim 6:4, and the interesting discussion in Responsa Seridei Eish, volume 2, 72, by Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg.
(12) Devarim 25:19.
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It is time that Israeli leaders, academicians and the Israeli public find their way back to the synagogue and rediscover their neshamot. But this is easier said than done. Many have entered and left without sensing any spiritual significance. In fact, many have entered and been discouraged and dismayed.
To attend synagogue is an art. People must come with a sincere urge to discover their Jewishness, to reconnect with their inner being and with the Jewish people. To enter the synagogue is to hope for a metamorphosis in one's soul and a transformation of one's personality.
When the well-known Jewish Philosopher Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) decided to leave Judaism and be baptized, he enacted this resolution by first attending the High Holiday services in a shtiebel (a small Orthodox synagogue) in Berlin. This was a final farewell to his former religion with which he never had a relationship. Arguing his case, he wrote: "We [Jews] are Christians in everything. We live in a Christian state, attend Christian schools, read Christian books; in short, our whole culture rests entirely on Christian foundations. Therefore, if a man has nothing to hold him back, he needs only a slight push…to make him accept Christianity." (2)
To his utter surprise, profoundly touched by the services, he underwent a deep religious metamorphosis and left the small synagogue with such a love for Judaism that he not only called off his decision to become a Christian, but decided to try and become a religious Jew. Consequently, he made a very intensive study of Judaism, wrote some remarkable works about his newfound religion, and turned into one of the most important thinkers of Judaism in modern times. (3)
What happened to Rosenzweig during those few hours in that small synagogue? What turned his whole life around and eventually transformed him into a deeply religious Jew? How is such a metamorphosis possible, especially in a man of such great intellectual perception? Rosenzweig, after all, had spent years contemplating the possibility of converting to Christianity. He had discussed this with many of his friends who had encouraged him to do so. Still, within a few hours he decided to disregard his earlier decision and become a committed Jew!
The answer to these questions may be found in a highly significant midrash that tells of a Jewish apostate, by the name of Joseph Meshita, who helped the Romans destroy the Temple.
"When the enemies [the Romans] desired to enter the Temple Mount, they said, 'Let one of them (the Jews) enter first.' They said to Joseph Meshita, 'Enter and whatever you bring out is yours.' So he went in and brought out a golden lamp. They said to him, 'It is not fitting for a common person to use this, so go in again, and whatever you bring out is yours.' This time, he refused. They offered him three years' taxes, yet he still refused and said, 'Is it not enough that I have angered my God once that I should anger Him again?' What did they do to him? They put him into a carpenter's clamp and sawed him and dismembered him. He cried, 'Woe to me that I angered my Creator!'" (4)
Rabbi Yosef Kahaneman, the famous Ponevicher Rav, once commented that this midrash conveys the mighty impact that the Temple had on human beings. The moment Joseph Meshita entered the Temple he underwent a spiritual metamorphosis. He suddenly realized that he was a Jew and that he had been deeply touched by the unique and holy atmosphere in the Temple and by the symbols he found there. He still managed to take out a golden lamp, but once outside he realized that he could no longer enter the Temple a second time. His newfound neshama did not allow him to do so. Even when the Romans offered him great amounts of money and then threatened to torture him to death, he could not defile the House of God again.
In his weekly parsha commentary, Rabbi Yissocher Frand (5) suggests that this midrash explains Franz Rosenzweig's sudden transformation when he entered the small synagogue in Berlin. Once he saw Jews in prayer, tallitot over their heads and in deep concentration, his neshama awoke, and his Jewishness was restored.
This, however, needs further explanation. In what way do a synagogue and prayers suddenly awaken a Jewish soul that was totally removed from anything Jewish? What was in the Temple that made Joseph Meshita feel the overwhelming spiritual power to the extent that he could not go in a second time? As suggested above, it relates, first of all, to the attitude one has even before entering the Temple, or a synagogue. After all, many went in and were disappointed, and even discouraged. Others defiled the sanctuary and showed no remorse. As is well known, Titus entered the Temple and had intercourse with a harlot in the Holy of Holies. (6) But even if one enters with the right approach, what turns this experience into a religious metamorphosis?
Here, we encounter the world of Jewish symbolism. According to kabbalistic thought, the physical symbols in the Temple, such as the altar and the menorah, are tangible reflections of the Ein Sof (the Infinite Divine matter), which descends into this world. These symbols are not fully comprehensible, since their essence belongs to the metaphysical world. Like some rituals, they touch on an aspect of human existence that cannot be reached in any other way. They are, however, identified by the subconscious, which has its root in the Divine, since man was formed in the Divine image. Consequently, they evoke in people an overwhelming recognition of the higher world, which gives them the unique feeling that they are looking into their own soul. This is the apperception of the neshama. The Temple was the representation of heaven on earth, and its symbols caused the soul to hear a perpetual murmur coming from waves far beyond the reach of any human. Such a divine manifestation would ultimately lead to the metamorphosis that Joseph Meshita experienced when he entered the Temple.
Similarly, Franz Rosenzweig discovered his own neshama while attending the service at the shtiebel in Berlin. Once he saw the symbolic objects, richly adorning the interior of the synagogue (representing the Temple), and simultaneously heard and read the prayers of the High Holidays, he entered the heavenly realm that had been continuously hovering within his soul. It revolutionized his inner being and brought heaven to earth. This happened not only from observing what took place in that small synagogue, but also from a desire to penetrate and become part of a highly significant religious experience.
This is what we suggest all Jews and Israelis try to accomplish: to enter a small synagogue filled with dedicated and passionate worshippers, and then to release all external and artificial components from their souls; to penetrate the surroundings in which they find themselves, and then to let go. This is far from easy, and indeed requires great courage, but the sudden feeling of belonging, which will result from an encounter with what we call the world of the neshama, will be unexpectedly blissful.
Much, however, depends on which synagogue the newcomer enters. Some synagogues are so devoid of any spiritual atmosphere that they repel the visitor who is seeking a religious experience. Many regular synagogue-goers do not realize the harm they do when they go through the motions of prayer without connecting with what they actually say. They show no enthusiasm or fire in their souls; in fact, they often look bored, as if waiting for the service to be over. While it is no doubt praiseworthy – and should not be underestimated – that they come, many of them daily, to the synagogue and participate in the services, for newcomers it can be a letdown and often causes them to turn their backs on Judaism.
Attending synagogue must be a homecoming; it will spare the Jewish world a great amount of self-imposed harm.
(1) I use the word neshome here, instead of neshama, because it conveys the connotation of a certain sensitive feeling developed throughout Jewish history, which the word neshama does not contain.
(2) Quoted by Samuel Hugo Bergman, Faith and Reason: Modern Jewish Thought (NY: Schocken Books, 1961), p. 57.
(3) Rosenzweig's most important work is The Star of Redemption. For a thorough critique, see: Eliezer Berkovits, Major Themes in Modern Philosophies of Judaism (NY: Ktav Publishing House, 1974) chap. 2.
(4) Yalkut Shimoni Bereishit 115:12. I am indebted to Rabbi Yissocher Frand of Baltimore for making me aware of this midrash.
(5) Parashat Toldot: ‘100% for the Sake of Heaven’ (1995/5756).
(6) Gittin 56b.
We live in an age of unabashed irreverence. Debunking has become the norm, and at every turn we experience a need to expose the clay feet of even the greatest. Human dignity, a phrase often mentioned, has become a farce in real life. Instead of deliberately looking for opportunities to love our fellow humans, as required by our holy Torah, many have rewritten this golden rule to read: "Distrust your fellow humans as you distrust yourself." People's lack of belief in themselves has spilled over into their relationships with others. Fearing their own deeds and mediocrity has led them to believe that moral and spiritual greatness has left us and that we are a generation of spiritual orphans.
This condition has slowly entered the subconscious of segments in the religious community as well, although in a more subtle form. Influenced by materialistic philosophies, many religious people who once revered their fellow humans have unknowingly become part of the problem. Instead of sending a message of unconditional love and respect for fellow Jews, whatever their background or beliefs, many within the religious Jewish community have fallen victim to debunking others, which has led to a most worrisome situation in and outside of the Land of Israel.
When observing even those who are fully committed to helping fellow Jews find their way back to Judaism, we see an attitude that is foreign to religious life and thought. We cannot escape the impression that some people, without denying their love for their fellow Jews, tend to talk down to secular Jews. This has become the norm. Constant emphasis is placed on the need to fix the secular person's mistaken lifestyle. No doubt such an attitude is born out of love, but it lays the foundation for infinite trouble. It is built on arrogance.
While religious Jews are seen as the ideal, they turn secular Jews into second-class members of the Jewish people. It is they who need to repent for their mistaken ways. Such an attitude is built on notions of disparity and lack of affinity. The secular Jew will always feel inferior. As such, the point of departure from which one reaches out to bring fellow Jews closer to Judaism is its undoing. The suggestion that "one should throw oneself into a burning furnace rather than insult another person publicly" (Berachot 43b) may very well apply, since it is the community of secular Jews that is being disparaged and treated as inferior.
For people to bring their fellow Jews back to Judaism there is a need to celebrate the mitzvot that secular Jews have been observing all or part of their lives, not to condemn their failure to observe some others. Only on the basis of sharing mitzvot will an authentic way be found to bring Jews back home.
The foundation should be humility, not arrogance. There is little doubt that secular Jews, consciously or unconsciously, keep a large number of commandments. Many of them may not be in the form of rituals, but there is massive evidence pointing to secular Jews' commitment to keeping interpersonal mitzvot. Beneath the divisiveness of traditional commitment lie underpinnings of religion such as compassion, humility, awe, and even faith. Different are the pledges, but equal are the devotions. It may quite well be that the meeting of minds is lacking between religious and non-religious Jews, but their spirits touch. Who will deny that secular Jews have a sense of mystery, forgiveness, beauty, and gentleness? How many of them do not have inner faith that God cares? And how many will not show great contempt for fraud or double standards? Each of these is the deepest of religious values.
This not only calls for a celebration but may well become an inspiration for religious Jews – not just by honoring secular Jews for keeping these mitzvot, but by renewing these and other good deeds themselves. There is a need to make the non-observant Jews aware of the fact that they are much more religious than they may know. To have them realize that God's light often shines on their faces just as much if not more than on the faces of religious Jews.
Just as non-religious Jews need to prove that they are worthy of being friends with religious Jews, so too must religious Jews be worthy of the friendship of their secular fellow Jews. It would be a most welcome undertaking if the religious would call on their secular fellow Jews for guidance in mitzvot that demand their own greater commitment.
There is a significant need for calling Jews back to their roots by showing them that they never left. Once religious Jews learn that secular Jews are their equals, not their inferiors, a return to Judaism on equal terms will come about.
One of the tragic failures of the ancient Jews was their indifference to the Ten Tribes of Israel that were carried away by Assyria after the Northern Kingdom was destroyed. Overlooked, and not taken seriously by their fellow Jews, they were consigned to oblivion and ultimately vanished.
This is a nightmare that, at this moment in Jewish history, should terrify each and every religious Jew: the unawareness of our being involved in a new failure, in a tragic dereliction of duty.
* Based on the writings of Avraham Joshua Heschel
As we are daily confronted with a steady increase in the number of Jews who have not only left the fold but are actively involved in anti-Jewish activity inside and outside Israel, it would perhaps be meaningful to study an episode in the life of a biblical non-Jew who decided to join the Jewish people at all costs.
Reading the story of Yitro (Shemot 18) – Moshe’s father-in-law and one of the earliest converts to Judaism – presents a challenge, not only to many anti-Jewish Jews but also to those who are actively living a Jewish religious life but lack the intensity and passion for Judaism and its message. For sensitive souls, Yitro’s story is not just a significant narrative but also a painful confrontation with one’s own Jewishness.
After many years of separation, Moshe and Yitro meet again. Moshe had married Yitro’s daughter Tzipora many years earlier but had then left his father-in-law’s home and gone back to Egypt to redeem his people. Subsequently, he took the Jews out of Egypt and miraculously led them through the Red Sea. Once the exodus had been realized, Yitro, Tzipora and her children were able to meet him again. The text tells us that this meeting took place in the wilderness:
“Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, came with [Moshe’s] sons and wife to the desert, where Moshe was staying…” (Ibid. 18:5).
What, asks Rashi, is the importance of knowing that they met in the desert? Rashi answers that this points to the tremendous sacrifice Yitro made when he decided to become a Jew:
“The verse speaks in praise of Yitro. He lived in a world of glory, yet his heart prompted him to go out to the desert wasteland to hear the words of the Torah” (ibid ad loc).
Indeed, tradition teaches us that Yitro was a man of great wealth. He had held the prestigious post of high priest in Midyan, comparable to the position of pope in Rome today. He was surrounded by servants and basked in glory and abundance. The verse now informs us that he gave up all of this to go to a “desert”, a place where he would no longer have any of these honors. He had decided to convert. In many ways, this was a catastrophic decision. All the glory and prestige would be gone. Instead of holding the post of high priest and playing a crucial role in world affairs, he would now be an ordinary Jew, sliding into oblivion. He would become one among many, no longer a man in his own right, just “the father-in-law of Moshe.”
In fact, our tradition continues to provide us with remarkable information about this sweeping decision. Yitro had become an outcast among his own people. After having rejected all forms of religion and philosophy known in his day, he was banned and abandoned by the societies in which he lived. He had turned into a “lonely man of faith”, as Rabbi Soloveitchik would say. Once he heard about the exodus from Egypt, the splitting of the Red Sea, and the soon-to-come revelation of the Divine Teaching at Sinai, everything else seemed of secondary importance. Only this moved him: to be part of the Jewish people and participate in their Torah experience. The price was indeed enormous.
Yitro confronts us for the first time with a new phenomenon: to be a Jew by choice. By doing so, he presents all Jews with a major challenge: how to become a Jew by choice even when one has been born into the fold; how to feel the fire needed to live the life of an authentic Jew, as Yitro did. Such an undertaking is possible only if one is able to re-enact and experience Yitro’s journey to Judaism.
It must have been a long and difficult road, a heart-rending challenge, with many ups and downs before finally arriving at the top. Along the way, Yitro must have had countless fiery conflicts with his former friends and colleagues, and he surely felt terribly lonely. He was plagued by doubts and inner conflicts before he was able to become a Jew. Like a baby taking its first steps, he most likely tried to engage the world of Torah and its spirit, undergoing its hardships before experiencing its joy. How many times must he have nearly thrown in the towel in despair, only to continue his struggle until he overcame all obstacles and took the final, crucial and radical step: to be a Jew and nothing but a Jew; to experience the incredible joy that accompanies it.
For many of us who were born into the fold, Yitro’s desire to become a Jew is a major problem. It hits us in the face. It’s a challenge to all those among us who left the fold, opting for a comfortable secular lifestyle. We must ask ourselves why a non-Jew would be prepared to give up everything to become Jewish. What is there in Judaism that makes a non-Jew conclude that it surpasses everything else? These questions should plague each one of us.
But also for those of us who are religiously observant, Yitro’s engagement with Judaism is a big challenge, posing questions such as: Am I in love with Judaism as much as Yitro was? Am I prepared to give up everything, including wealth, honor and social standing? Would I have been prepared to exchange my prestigious position in the world for a life in the desert, ridiculed by old friends and colleagues?
Yitro forces each one of us to ask ourselves whether we would have opted for Judaism had we not been born Jewish. And if yes, would this not mean that we would have had to start all over again, discovering it on our own so as to comprehend what it is really all about? If Yitro traveled his road to Judaism step by step in order to fully grasp its beauty and truth, we may have to re-engage ourselves with every mitzvah as if we have never done it before, as real beginners. Only that way can we become “Jews by choice”, real Jews. Perhaps we should begin a process by which we take hold of every mitzvah that we have been observing for years and transform it into something radically new.
It is told that the great Jewish philosopher and ba’al teshuva Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929), in his earlier days when he was still on his way to becoming a real Jew, was once asked whether he put on tefillin. “Not yet”, was his answer. Although he may not have felt ready at the time to take on this great mitzvah, he made it clear that he looked forward to the day when wearing tefillin would become a truly religious experience. Surely this does not mean that we should wait until we are fully ready. After all, it was Rosenzweig himself who taught that it is in the deed that one hears the mitzvah. Only when one actually does a mitzvah can one hear and feel its profundity. But it does mean that when a person just goes through the motions of putting on tefillin, they have not yet authentically performed the mitzvah. Only when one approaches it as a novice, as did Yitro, can one experience its full power. Not out of tradition or habit, but from a genuine desire to fulfill the word of God.
This is the road that Yitro took, which led him to realize the enormous religious profundity of Judaism, of each and every mitzvah, for which he was prepared to give up everything. And therefore he poses a challenge to each of us.
The famous non-Jewish, British, literary historian A.L. Rowse (1903-1997) gave added meaning to Yitro’s decision when he wrote at the end of his memoirs: “If there is any honour in all the world that I should like, it would be to be an honorary Jewish citizen.” (A.L. Rowse, Historians I Have Known, London: Duckworth, 1955, p. 204) For him, it remained an unfulfilled dream.
For many Jews, it is a reality never dreamed about and consequently unappreciated.
One of the most common psychological conditions human beings find themselves in is denial. All people repress unpleasant experiences and do not want to be confronted with reality when it is not to their liking. Sigmund Freud devoted his full attention to this phenomenon.
In this week’s parshah, BeShalach, we read about a most bizarre complaint received by Moshe. After the Israelites experienced the ten plagues, left Egypt, and witnessed the downfall of Pharaoh, they accuse Moshe of having brought them into a disastrous situation. Once they realize that Pharaoh is chasing them, they say:
“Are there no graves in Egypt that you have taken us to die in the desert? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Isn’t this the very thing we told you in Egypt, when we said, ‘Leave us alone and let us work for the Egyptians’? For it would have been better to be slaves in Egypt than to die in the desert.” (1)
This is a remarkable twist of events! What skepticism, arrogance and utter untruth to say “We told you so in Egypt”! Even more surprising is the fact that after witnessing the unprecedented miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea, the Jews once again repeat these psychological fabrications:
“And the entire community of Israelites complained against Moshe and Aaron in the desert. And the children of Israel said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of God in Egypt, where we sat by pots of meat and ate our fill of bread. But you brought us out to this desert, to kill the entire community by starvation!’” (2)
This argument is astonishing. A fiction of unimaginable proportions! Was there really a choice between living a life of tranquility in Egypt and dying in the desert? Not only that, but God’s name is invoked so as to make the argument stronger and religiously sound.
There are several ways to understand this phenomenon of radical self-deception. Obviously, the Israelites were well aware that their life in Egypt was definitely not one of tranquility while sitting by pots of meat! So what were they saying?
I would suggest that they did not intend to deny the past, but that they wanted to deny the future. Not that it did not happen, but that it would not happen again!
It’s as if they were saying: Now that Pharaoh has been without us for some time, he has surely realized that we are a great asset to his nation and to the future of his government. He is in need of the Jewish kop (head, or brain) to run his country and develop it. So let us return home in triumph!
We will be received with dignity and honor. Don’t you realize, Moshe, that Pharaoh’s chasing us is really a clear indication of his desire to escort us peacefully back to Egypt and offer us comfortable homes and food? We are just scared of them because you won’t allow us to go home. You argue that pandemonium will erupt, and that they’ll kill us out of frustration. But Pharaoh has learned his lesson, and from now on we will live in tranquility and indeed eat from Egypt’s pots of meat! Why can’t you see this, Moshe?
Even after the splitting of the Red Sea, this argument still stands: God only split the Red Sea to show Pharaoh and the Egyptians what a prestigious people we are. We are protected by God and are therefore of invaluable importance to the Egyptians. We will be welcomed in Egypt with open arms and given the most prestigious positions in the country. A new world has opened up, and it is time we realize that. And if you, Moshe, ask us how we know that this is exactly what God has in mind, we respond that He would otherwise have given us plenty of food in the desert, and we would not have being chased by Pharaoh. God would have destroyed Pharaohs’ chariots the moment he left Egypt to punish us! Everything that is happening to us is a clear indication that we are ethically and even ‘halachically’ obligated to return to Egypt!
These arguments were just the beginning of a history of supreme Jewish self-deception. To this day, similar attitudes often create the foundations of Jewish self-rejection and self-hate, which become the root of animosity toward anyone who does not join this self-imposed denial of the Jewish cause.
The Israelites continued their line of reasoning as follows: Pharaoh did all these terrible things to us because he sensed that we wanted to leave and therefore he started killing our boys. (3) But if we had made it clear that we wanted to stay and had no such dreams of freedom, nothing unpleasant would have happened to us. We would have been part of the Egyptian kulturgesellschaft and everything would have been fine. But now, since we acted with double loyalties, we are paying the price.
This may very well have been the reason why Moshe, at the burning bush, did not want to accept God’s command to become the redeemer, claiming that he had a speech impediment. (4) He was hesitant to take this task upon himself, because he realized that when he would return to Egypt, Jews would say to him: It all started with you! You ran away from Pharaoh’s palace after killing the Egyptian (5), and then Pharaoh started hating us. Because of you, our people are being killed. So leave us alone and forget your aspirations to be our redeemer. This would indeed have made Moshe speechless.
Looking at Jewish history and current events, we realize that the above arguments sound all too familiar. Yes, Jews in Europe should be able to live as free people. But they must not think that Europeans will wake up to the fact that Europe without its Jews will no longer be Europe, and that Jews will be accepted by all segments of society and anti-Semitism will come to an end. Solving the problem of anti-Semitism can only begin once we fully understand where it originates. And most Jews, as well as gentiles, have still not grasped its actual roots. In fact, they prefer to look the other way. (6)
(1) Shemot 14:11-12.
(2) Ibidem, 16:2-3.
(3) Rashi on Shemot 1:16.
(4) Shemot 4:10.
(5) Ibidem, 2:11-15.
(6) See Thoughts to Ponder 341 – “Unmasking Anti-Semitism.”