“I blame the Pottery Barn holiday catalog for the fact that my husband and I, both Jews, spent last weekend in Home Depot picking out a Christmas tree.”
So begins an article printed in the New York Times this week. Although it is wonderful to hear that some Jews are still marrying Jews, the article succeeds admirably in its attempt to disturb. The writer mocks the consumerism of Christmas in America and assures us that the appeal is purely aesthetic, but that does little to assuage the revulsion of those of us with an iota of religious sensitivity, Jewish pride or even just an awareness of history.
The sad truth is, her story is probably far more common than we would like to admit.
Why is American Jewry so shallow? Why is their connection to their heritage so tenuous? The answer can be found in this week’s parsha.
Yaakov is old now, but he is journeying to Egypt to see his long lost son Yosef before he dies. On the road out of Israel, Yaakov receives a prophecy.
I am G-d, the Lord of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt for I will make you a great nation there.
Presumably, G-d would only tell someone not to be afraid if they were. What was Yaakov afraid of? Egypt’s a great country! It’s got exotic restaurants, tourist attractions, boating on the Nile… and Yosef runs the place! What could be bad?
The answer is that these are precisely the things that make Yaakov nervous. Yaakov is afraid of assimilation. And he was right – the Jews very nearly lost their identity during their stay in Egypt. This is why G-d came to Yaakov, to reassure him that his descendants would not vanish in the Egyptian melting pot. (R. Yaakov Kaminetzky, d. 1986)
Yaakov does not rely on miracles; he takes matters into his own hands.
[Yaakov] sent Yehuda ahead of him to make preparations (l’horot) in Goshen. (Bereishit 46:28)
L’horot is translated as “preparations” (Kaplan), but literally the word means to legislate or to teach. Rashi says the following:
According to the Midrash, l’horot means to set up a house of study.
This was Yaakov’s plan to ensure Jewish survival. Before he brought his family to Egypt, he set up Jewish schools. After he got there would have been too late.
Yaakov arrives in Egypt and is reunited with his son, but there is no time now to catch up on lost years. Some important business must be taken care of first. Pharaoh will want to meet the family and Yosef needs to prime them.
To his brothers and his father’s family, Yosef said, “I will go and tell Pharaoh. I will say the following to him: ‘My brother’s and my father’s family have come to me from Canaan. These men deal in livestock and are tenders of sheep. They have brought along their sheep, their cattle and all their possessions.’
“When Pharaoh summons you and inquires as to your occupation, you will tell him, ‘We and our fathers have dealt in livestock from our childhood until now.’ This is in order to ensure that you settle in the Goshen district, since all shepherds are taboo in Egypt.” (Bereishit 46:31-34)
What is going on here? Why the politicking? Who cares where they live? Was livelihood a problem for the brothers of Yosef? If shepherding was taboo, would it not be prudent for new immigrants to find a different line of work?
The real intent of Yosef and his brothers is not hard to figure out. The family had no emotional attachment to sheep; they just wanted to be left alone. The Egyptian distaste for shepherding was being used as a convenient excuse for living apart.
This is the story of the Jews in all of their exiles. Our fathers and the fathers of our fathers always preferred to tolerate the [anti-Semitic] decrees and persecutions of the nations of the world, just as long as they would not have to have a relationship with them. (Reb Yerucham Levovitz, d.1936)
This week’s parsha illustrates the traditional Jewish plan for survival in exile. It starts with a healthy fear of assimilation, followed by the early creation of Torah schools and clearly defined Jewish communities. This was obviously not the model for Jewish immigration to the United States and now we suffer the consequences.
Today our brothers and sisters joyously embrace the religions of America, whether it be Christianity, Secularism, Materialistic Consumerism or some bizarre combination of the three. They are lost to our people and don’t even know it yet. But don’t blame them or the Pottery Barn catalogue. Blame the grandparents who came to these shores without fear.