Thursday, January 19, 2012

Who Wants to Leave Egypt? A Thought for Va'era


 On my recent whirlwind tour of the United States, my travels brought me to Lakewood, NJ, for the Sunday evening Bar Mitzvah of my nephew. The next day, I returned to Lakewood to spend the day with my family, as we shopped together before we caught our flight home. We hit a Seforim store, an amazing toy store, the pizza store, and of course, Target. (They have those in other places too.)
Truthfully, while it was really nice to see my sister's new home, I found Lakewood depressing for two very different reasons. I found that the center of town reminded me of Washington Heights - reason enough to get depressed. But then, right before we left, we ran to minchah in a brand new subdivision near my sister's house in a basement shul, and I began to grasp just how much Lakewood had expanded since my last visit several years earlier. The entire subdivision - and many of the houses surrounding it, were entirely frum. Moreover, the developer was obviously an Orthodox Jew as well, having named some of the streets after old European communities (Kelm Woods Drive, Brisk Lane). Seeing the street signs depressed me a great deal because it really hit me: here is a community of people truly dedicated to living lives of commitment to Torah, and they were building their Torah-true community in Lakewood, NJ. (If you didn't understand that last sentence and thought, "What's so bad about that?", there's a very strong chance that you don't live in Israel. Because if you do, the sentence would be self-explanatory.)
At the beginning of Va'era, God explains to Moshe the divine plan to deliver the Jewish people from Egypt. God tells Moshe, 
 וְגַם אֲנִי שָׁמַעְתִּי, אֶת-נַאֲקַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֲשֶׁר מִצְרַיִם, מַעֲבִדִים אֹתָם; וָאֶזְכֹּר, אֶת-בְּרִיתִי.
And moreover I have heard the groaning of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians keep in bondage; and I have remembered My covenant.
Rabbi Benzion Firrer, in his book "Hegyonah Shel Torah" asks why God needed to hear the cries of the Jewish people in order to remember His covenant. Does Jewish suffering make the covenant any easier to remember? In fact, it seems clear that the divine plan included increased suffering of the Jewish nation. After all, God knew that Par'oh would initially refuse to free the Jews, and would increase their workload as well. Why was all of this necessary?
Rav Firrer answers his question by quoting a famous Rashi about the plague of darkness. Rashi wonders what the purpose of the darkness was at all. After all, it didn't cause any lasting suffering or damage. What was the point? Rashi answers,
שהיו בישראל באותו הדור רשעים, ולא היו רוצים לצאת, ומתו בשלשת ימי אפלה כדי שלא יראו מצרים במפלתם ויאמרו אף הן לוקין כמונו. 
There were wicked Jews in that generation who did not wish to leave [Egypt], and they perished during the three days of darkness, so that the Egyptians would not see their downfall and say, "They are being punished like us."
Rav Firrer suggests that if a good number of Jews didn't want to leave Egypt after the first eight plagues, it would stand to reason that a much larger number didn't want to leave the country before any of the plagues hit at all. Sure, a small number of radicals were willing to follow Moshe from the beginning. But most Jews probably figured that while life was indeed terrible in Egypt, they didn't want to leave. 
Why wouldn't they leave an Egypt that tormented them so terribly? Rav Firrer explains that they didn't want to leave, because they considered themselves Egyptians. Sure life was bad. But in every country, some people did better and others did worse. Some groups enjoyed success while others toil and struggle. Why should Egypt be any different. And, they attributed their suffering  to the acts of evil people. They weren't enslaved because of any inherent difference between themselves and their masters. Rather, they all shared the same common nationality with their captors; they shared a bond that they weren't willing to give up. They wouldn't leave Egypt because in the end, they too were Egyptian.
This, explained Rav Firrer, is why God engineered an increase in their suffering. At some point, the Jews' suffering became so great that they came to recognize the truth: they were different. The Egyptians didn't see them as fellow countrymen, but instead as a separate people to oppress and subjugate. Only when the Jews themselves came to that realization could the Redemption even be possible.
I stumbled upon Rav Firrer's words this evening, as a perused his book at the back of the shul. Reading his thought, I realized that he had articulated what so bothered me about my trip, and Lakewood, and Baltimore for that matter. If you can build a Jewish city in the heart of New Jersey, then you really don't see yourself as inherently different. Sure, Orthodox Jews might act differently, eat differently and pray differently. But the Jews of America are precisely that: American. They (understandably) feel an intrinsic connection, and a sense of belonging to their homeland, and see no reason to think otherwise.
History is nothing if not repetitive. The time will come, whether sooner or later, when the Jews of America will come to realize that as great as America is, they do not belong. They might be from America; they might live there, speak the language, immerse themselves in the culture; but one day they will realize clearly enough just how different they are, and that it is not their place.
Lakewood, like Goshen, is a wonderful town. But those towns have no long-term future, no matter what they name the streets.