You Can Take the Jew Out of the Country, But ...
By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
These are the names of the Children of Israel that came to Egypt with
Ya'akov-each man and household. (Shemos 1:1)
This verse may have been more accurate had it said, "each man and his
family." Although "household" can imply family, still, it also implies
"home," and the Jewish people did not transport their homes down to Egypt ...
Or did they?
We know from last week's parshah that Yosef did everything he could to
protect the Jewish people from the influences of Egypt. Ya'akov too sent
Yehudah down to Egypt to establish places of study and prayer, in advance
of the coming of the rest of the family. No one was taking any chances-the
environment had to be as "kosher" as it could be for them before their
arrival, especially since they were going to Egypt. Hence the verse's
wording: each man and his household, as if to say, the family of Ya'akov
did everything they could to transport their household life they had
developed while living securely in Canaan, to insulate themselves from the
effects of the most immoral nation on earth.
This is also why Sefer Shemos opens with the words "these are the names
(shemos) ..." As Rabbi Shimon Raphael Hirsch points out, the words "shaim"
(name) and "shumm" (there) are related, not just through their spellings,
but conceptually as well. For, the point of a name is to make it easy to
locate someone in time and space, just as the word "there" does. In a
sense, a name is a spiritual coordinate for a person.
Therefore, the posuk is telling us that when the family of Ya'akov came
down to Egypt, they did so spiritually intact. You could "locate" them,
because among the Egyptians, they were noticeable, being spiritually
different than the rest of them.
However, this was only how they "came down" to Egypt; it was not how they
remained in Egypt, as we see that they assmiliated into Egyptian society
over time. Nevertheless, the essence of who they were did not change with
time, though it became hidden under layers of Egyptian lifestyle. The
essential spiritual coordinate of the Jew had remained there all the time,
and this is what kept them separate enough to make them redeemable.
I witnessed this idea first hand this week.
I happened to be standing in a yeshivah for American Ba'alei Teshuvah this
week with little or troubled religious backgrounds, reading the bulletin
board when some young man whizzed by me. He was going too fast to be
running, and the noise he made indicated to me that he was on roller
blades. I ignored it.
A few seconds later, he came flying past me again, obviously very good as
his maneuvering revealed, and something inside me said, "Look how we have
come to imitate the non-Jews. Not only does this boy skate like a seasoned
roller blader, but he's doing it in a place of Torah yet! Is nothing sacred
And then, while I was thinking this and he continued on his path out the
front door, his left hand reached out with precision timing and then a
moment later, was pulled back in just before it hit the door itself. I
realize he had kissed the mezuzah on the way out.
I thought to myself, the clothing and the skates are not Jewish, but the
soul inside-that's Jewish, that's 100% Jewish. And though I am still not a
fan of roller blades (as you can tell), especially when they are used to
get around in a place of Torah, I must say, I derived great satisfaction
and an impromptu important lesson that night: You can take the Jew out of
the country, but you can't take the soul out of the Jew.
A man from the house of Levi had taken a daughter of Levi as his wife ...
As the verses soon make clear, this verse is referring to Amram and
Yocheved, the mother and father of Moshe-future redeemer of the Jewish
people. As the Talmud points out, Amram was not only the spiritual leader
of the generation, but a spiritually perfect individual as well, dying
eventually only because death was decreed on mankind from the time of Adam
(i.e., he didn't deserve to die otherwise; Shabbos 54b). This is why his
name was "Amram," according to "Asarah Ma'ameros" (64:3), from the words
"omer nakki," which literally mean "clean omer."
What is an omer?
An omer is a dry measure used often in the Torah, equal to about two
quarts. The munn, the miraculous bread that fell from Heaven for the forty
years the Jewish people wandered in the desert, fell in the amount of one
omer per person. The Meal-Offerings used in the service of the Mishkan and
later, in the Temple, were often measured according to this amount as well.
In short, the omer is more than just a measure; it is also equal in
gematria to 310, the number of "worlds" G-d promises to reward the
righteous with in the World-to-Come (Sanhedrin 100a). It is a word that
alludes to spiritual perfection and trust in G-d, which Amram obviously
Yocheved, Asarah Ma'ameros continues, was also quite spiritually perfect.
This is why Yocheved was born prior to entering Egypt ("between the walls";
Rashi, Bereishis 46:15), a place of terrible spiritual impurity. In fact,
the word "Yocheved" (yud, vav, chof, bais, dalet), by rearranging the
letters can spell the word, kevodi (chof, bais, vav, dalet, yud), which
means "my honor," referring to G-d (i.e., Yocheved's birth brought honor to
G-d, so-to-speak). It doesn't hurt either that the numerical value of her
name is forty-two (10+6+20+2+4), the number of letters in the Name of G-d
that prophets used to meditate on to go into a state of prophecy.
Hence, even though the possukim make it seem as if an ordinary man just
happened to take back his wife, and just happened to produce a Moshe
Rabbeinu, we see that it is not true. Amram and Yocheved were no ordinary
people-they were spiritual giants who produced an even greater spiritual
giant, one who would later talk to G-d "face-to-face."
On the other hand, says the Asarah HaMa'ameros, "Amran was prohibited by Torah law from marrying Yocheved since she was his aunt. An uncle is indeed permitted to marry his niece."
Thus, for this
reason, Moshe did not merit to enter Eretz Yisroel, just as Rachel died
when Ya'akov entered Eretz Yisroel on his return from living with Lavan,
his father-in-law. (Ya'akov had married two sisters, which, at the time,
might have been fine outside of Israel but not inside Israel. Therefore,
Rachel died at the point of entry into the country.)
There is a lot to discuss here, but for the time being, we learn that only
creation came into being "something from nothing." However, when it comes
to creating mortals from mortals, short of a miracle, something must come
from something, which emphasizes our own need to take spiritual strides
forward if we're going to expect the same from our children.
Moshe said to G-d, "Who am I to go to Pharaoh? And will I bring the
children of Israel out of Egypt?" (Bereishis 3:11)
It is hard to detect from the few verses portraying G-d's appointing of
Moshe that he strongly rejected the Divine mission. Indeed, the Midrash
says that Moshe demurred for seven straight days, before G-d lost His
patience, so-to-speak, and told Moshe that he's to go anyway.
Why did Moshe Rabbeinu so strongly reject his mission? From the verses
themselves, it sounds as if Moshe felt he was inadequate for the job. It
sounds as if Moshe felt that he could not take on Paroah and the forces of
evil that surrounded him.
However, it is brought down that Moshe's sense of inadequacy was not based
upon a fear of Paroah, but on a fear of how the Jewish people had fallen to
such a low spiritual level. Moshe was telling G-d, in effect, I am not
capable of inspiring the people to do such major teshuvah. Can I bring the
people back from the abyss of idol worship, and cause them to become worthy
of a miraculous redemption?" Moshe complained to G-d. "I can't even bear to
see what they look like now, after all their assimilation into Egyptian
However, it is explained, Moshe erred. First of all, he thought that in the
end, G-d would punish them for all the idol worship they had committed, and
that this was the reason why the oppression increased after he told Paroah
to let them go. But that had not been the case; the Midrash explains that
G-d forgave them for their sins of idol worship, because it was the
spiritual impurity of Egypt that caused them to become involved.
Second of all, we see that later the Jewish people did in fact do teshuvah
gemurah-complete repentance, because the verse later says that "they
believed in G-d and His servant Moshe" (Shemos 14:31), and that they had
"followed after G-d into the desert, and a land that was not sown"
(Yirmiyahu 2:2). What Moshe had deemed impossible had in fact occurred
after a very short time.
What makes this so inspiring is that as bad as things are for the Jewish
people from our perspective, perhaps from G-d's perspective, it is not so
hopeless. Everywhere you look, with few exceptions, we have integrated many
of the values and priorities of the host societies in which we find
ourselves at present. Even religious circles have incorporated far more
from the secular environment than might have been the case decades ago.
Just like it had happened in Europe, and just like it had happened in Spain
On the other hand, as the Midrash is telling us, so much of this is the
result of being in exile for such a long period of time. It is difficult to
live amongst so much physicality and not be effected by some of it over
time. At first there may be resistance from the Jewish people, as there was
at first by Yosef and his brothers, and their families in Egypt. But as
time wears on, eventually, assimilation becomes inevitable, starting with
the weaker elements of Jewish society and ending up with the stronger
elements as well.
G-d takes all of this into account, and will deal with us accordingly,
which may be more gently than we might have dealt with ourselves. He knows
our hearts and our minds, and understands what we are responsible for, and
for what we are not completely responsible.
However, All of that is G-d's business. We have also suffered pogroms and a
Holocaust as well; we can't assume that G-d is willing to overlook
everything all the time. In the words of one rabbi: It is either program or
pogrom-either you actively try to bring the Jewish people to do teshuvah,
or, G-d forbid, G-d Himself will do it, His own way. From our perspective,
we have to view assimilation as a crisis, and respond accordingly, knowing
that G-d will be fair with us all along the way.
Moshe took his wife and his sons, and placed them upon the donkey, and
returned to the land of Egypt ... (Shemos 4:20)
When it came time to leave for Egypt, Moshe arranged for the best available
transportation of that day: a chamor-a donkey. However, the Midrash tells
us that this donkey was not your average donkey:
This is the donkey that was created at twilight during the six days of
creation; this is the donkey that Avraham saddled to go and bind Yitzchak
his son; this is the donkey that Moshe Rabbeinu rode to Egypt, and this is
the donkey that the Son of David (Moshiach) will ride in the future.
(Yalkut, Devarim 86a).
Now, that's a donkey that's been around, and, apparently, a very old
donkey-presently, 5759 years old! Is the Midrash to be taken literally?
Perhaps. On the other hand, the donkey is the symbol of
gashmius-physicality-and a lifestyle devoid of spirituality. The word
"chamor" comes from the word "chomer," which means "ingredient," and
therefore symbolizes the physical world, and Egypt as well, for that
The struggle of man is to master physicality, to harness its power to
facilitate the goals of the soul. For many, it is just the opposite: the
soul is the slave of the body. From a Torah perspective, that lifestyle is
exile of the worse type. Redemption, on the other hand, is breaking away
from such a lifestyle and working on achieving spiritual goals. Maybe
that's the donkey that all the redeemers have been riding.
In order for Avraham to sacrifice his beloved son, he had to place more
emphasis on spiritual goals than physical ones. This was brought out by his
willingness to sacrifice his physical son for a spiritual G-d. Likewise,
Moshe, in order to free the Jewish people from the clutches of the nation
of physicality, had to first be above its power, and this was symbolized by
his riding the chamor and acting as its master.
Similarly, the Moshiach will also possess the same ability to be unaffected
by the pull of gashmius, in order to bring an end to a culture that is, for
the most part, built from a drive for physical comfort.
Have a great Shabbos,