What would your immediate reaction be if I were to tell you that we, the Jewish People, have succeeded in holding on to our traditions so tightly that we have retained our unique identity in the face of the most incredible adversity?
Disbelief? Scorn? Pride?
How about if I told you that we had sunk so low that it looks as if we are going to slip into the abyss of assimilation never to reappear. What would your reaction be then?
Disbelief? Scorn? Pride?
One thing is for sure -- both of those statements cannot be applied to the same nation at the same time! Right? Well, only if we are not talking about the Jewish Nation. Because that is exactly what we are told. One Midrash relates that during our 210-year "sojourn" in Egypt we did not change our Jewish names, nor our Jewish language, nor our Jewish style of clothing, and we practiced kind deeds (Gemilut Chasadim).
After all, compare this to today. Here we all are wearing "modern" clothing, reading an article in our mother tongue -- English (or American) -- most of us with non-Jewish first names in our passports, learning about a generation that apparently was in much better shape than we are today! In fact, for many the first reaction to that Midrash is to think "I wish our generation today were so 'Jewishly' aware!"
On the other hand, there is another Midrash that points out the discrepancy between the promise that G-d made to Abraham that we would be exiled for 400 years in a strange land and the fact that we only remained in Egypt for 210 years. What happened to the remaining 190 years? The Sages explain that our spiritual level was so precarious that G-d had to take us out of Egypt immediately before we slipped into the fiftieth level of spiritual impurity -- a level from which there is no return!
Accordingly, G-d had to "recalculate" the 400 years to begin with the birth of Isaac, who was born -- on Pesach -- 190 years prior to our descent to Egypt.
How's that for contradictory messages -- on the one hand we look great, on the other we look as if we are on our last legs!
The Maharal of Prague offers a simple answer to the problem. The Maharal writes that when the Midrash states the Jews retained those four things in Egypt (names, language, clothing and kind deeds) -- that was all they kept! Nothing else! Being slaves in a land that was the very center of the world at the time, being exposed to anything and everything that the human mind could possibly imagine, had taken its toll collectively on the Jewish People to such an extent that it was possible to count our mitzvah observance on one hand (without even using all the fingers)!
Incredible! And that answers the question of how it is possible to have two such seemingly contradictory statements referring to the same nation at the same time.
However, I must confess that for many years I personally found this answer to be a touch perplexing. I found it difficult to juggle the concepts of almost complete spiritual abandonment with the mitzvot that were being kept. Three out of four represent the outward symbols of being Jewish. Despite the tremendous drop in spirituality, we carried on representing ourselves to the rest of the world as...Jews! That seems to defy logic.
After all, for generations the accepted route of assimilation always seems to start with the jettisoning of overt Jewish symbols. Cohen becomes Caine, Yiddish becomes English, a covered head becomes an uncovered head. All in an attempt to project a different facade to the outside world.
So why were things different in Egypt?
Despite being a little unsure of myself, I repeated the Maharal's explanation at my parents' Seder one year and it was received with great acclaim. However, after I finished I told my father that I really didn't understand what I had just said! In my eyes there was still a discrepancy between keeping "so much" and keeping "so little" and I could not see how they could be reconciled.
My father then related an incredible recollection from his childhood that gave me an insight into the Maharal and into human nature as well!
When the Jews came to England during the early 1900s, many gravitated to London and specifically to the East End (London's equivalent of New York's Lower East Side). The Jewish community was a close-knit one and for a long time entirely Shabbat observant (outwardly, at least). My father recounted that, as a small child, he remembered the first time that a Jewish store remained open on Shabbat. What a tumult! Complete chaos! Pandemonium! People running all over shouting, crying -- all to no avail, as the owner categorically refused to shut the doors to his store! What stuck in my father's mind was not so much the fact that one store was now open on Shabbat but that three weeks later nearly all the stores were open!
My father explained to me that all it takes is one person with the "courage" to break away from the norm to destroy a whole, fragile edifice. That, explained my father, was the situation in Egypt as well. We looked and sounded so Jewish -- but it was an external connection. As long as we held on to those symbols, so long as we shared in common our Jewish names, language and clothing, we retained a sense of our national identity. G-d, in His infinite wisdom, understood that to leave us to our own devices in Egypt for another 190 years was a recipe for disaster -- because, without a doubt, someone would be bound to get up and say "I'm not going to wear these clothes anymore. They're too old fashioned!"
At that precise moment Jewish identity would be in danger of crashing down and burying us in the fiftieth level of spiritual impurity.
All of a sudden it seems that perhaps our generation is not in such bad shape as it may seem at first. You see, while it is true that we tend to look and sound like everyone else, inside of the Jewish People there is the most incredible explosion taking place. Thousands upon thousands of Jewish people now thirst to experience a reawakening of their Jewish roots. To absorb the majesty and the beauty of an authentic Shabbat. To understand the tremendous depths of what Pesach really means. To delight in the unparalleled thrill of fulfilling the mitzvot. Such feelings begin in the inner chambers of one's heart and slowly permeate their way through every cell and pore until they exist within the entire person.
It may take a while but the result is something that is so embedded in the individual that it is unshakable -- and that is the secret of our survival!
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