In the previous letter, The Failure of “Zionism” to Eliminate Anti-Semitism, I cited historical data which makes us aware that the attempt by many Jews to assimilate among the nations in the hope of eliminating anti-Semitism actually led to increased anti-Semitism. As Dr. Arthur Hertzberg wrote, there were Jews in Europe who initially tried to solve the problem of anti-Semitism by “completely refashioning themselves in the image of proper westerners” (The Zionist Idea). I also discussed how Theodor Herzl and some other leaders of the World Zionist Organization thought of the following “national” version of assimilation – one which they believed would quickly solve the problem of anti- Semitism:
The entire Jewish nation will refashion itself as a proper western nation in its own land and thereby win the friendship and respect of the other nations.
The more recent data that I cited makes us aware of the following reality: The establishment of the westernized State of Israel failed to eliminate anti-Semitism; moreover, the establishment of this state actually became a catalyst for a new wave of anti-Semitism which is spreading across the world.
Those Jews who hoped that assimilation – whether of the individual or national variety – would eliminate anti-Semitism thought that their hope had a rational basis. After all, when a minority group begins to assimilate among the majority group, it usually lessens negative feelings towards the minority group. Why, then, did this strategy ultimately fail when it was applied to our people? In this letter, I will begin to discuss the teachings of our prophets and sages which can answer this question, as these teachings reveal the spiritual and cosmic reasons why Jewish attempts to assimilate – either as individuals or as a nation – eventually lead to increased anti-Semitism.
The Torah reveals that our existence as a separate people within our own land has a universal goal, and the Prophets of Israel elaborate on this idea. One of the beautiful references to this universal goal is found in the following Divine message which the Prophet Isaiah conveyed to our people:
“Thus said the God, Hashem, Who created the heavens and stretched them forth; Who firmed the earth and its produce, Who gave a soul to the people upon it, and a spirit to those who walk on it. I am Hashem; I have called you on behalf of righteousness; I will strengthen your hand, and I will preserve you; I will set you as a covenant for the people, as a light for the nations.” (Isaiah 42:5,6)
“I will set you as a covenant for the people” – for the existence of the earth’s peoples, as the Hebrew word for “covenant” – bris – is an expression of existence (commentary of Radak).
Radak explains that we will achieve the universal goal of becoming a covenant for the existence of the peoples, as well as becoming a light for the nations, when we will experience the fulfillment of the prophecy that “Torah will go forth from Zion” (Isaiah 2:3), for the nations will then “beat their swords into plowshares” (Isaiah 2:4). In addition, says Radak, Israel will inspire the nations to fulfill the universal life-giving path within the Torah which applies to all humankind, which is why the nations will say, “Come, let us go up to the Mountain of Hashem, to the Temple of the God of Jacob, and He will teach us of His ways and we will walk in His paths” (Isaiah 2:3).
The above Divine promise regarding the universal goal of our history is actually an elaboration of the early Divine promises that we are to become a source of blessing for all the families of the earth. For example, Hashem told Jacob, our father:
“All the families of the earth will be blessed through you and your offspring” (Genesis 28:14).
If our people exist for the benefit of the world, then the disappearance of our people through destruction or assimilation would be a loss to the world. This is a reason why just before Hashem told us, “I will set you as a covenant for the people, as a light for the nations,” He said, “I will preserve you” – a promise that despite our tribulations and falls, He will not allow our people to disappear from the earth through total destruction or total assimilation, for we exist for the sake of the world. In this universal spirit, we will discuss prophecies and teachings which reveal that the Guardian of Israel will intervene in order to prevent our people from disappearing through assimilation among the nations, and we will begin with an example from the story of our exile in Egypt:
Our father, Jacob, was given the additional name, “Israel” (Genesis 35:10); thus, his descendants became known as the Children of Israel. When Israel and his family descended into Egypt, they were given the region of Goshen as their separate area of settlement (Genesis 45:10). Egypt was a decadent, oppressive society that worshiped the gods of power, lust, and wealth; however, in Goshen, the Children of Israel were to maintain their separate identity and fulfill their Divine mandate “to keep the way of Hashem, sharing their resources with the needy, and doing justice” (Genesis 18:19).
As the years went by, many of the Children of Israel became attracted to the pagan culture of the Egyptians. They began to wander all over Egypt, and the Torah records, “and the land became full of them” (Exodus 1:7). The Torah then describes how the Children of Israel became enslaved.
The Midrash Rabbah (1:8) explains that before they became enslaved, they said to one another, “Let us be like the Egyptians!” The Midrash notes that the desire to be like the Egyptians caused them to neglect the mitzvah of circumcision. As a result of this trend towards assimilation, states the Midrash, the Holy One transformed the love that the Egyptians originally had for the Children of Israel into a hatred of the Children of Israel. The Midrash mentions that a source for this explanation can be found in the following passage from Psalm 105:
“Then Israel came to Egypt and Jacob sojourned in the land of Ham...He turned their hearts to hate His nation, to plot against His servants” (Psalm 105: 23,25).
Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik was a leading sage of the late 19th century, and he discusses the above verse from Psalm 105 in his commentary on the opening section of the Book of Exodus (Beis Halevi, Parshas Shmos). He explains that since the Children of Israel were beginning to assimilate among the Egyptians, Hashem caused the hearts of the Egyptians to hate the Children of Israel, in order to preserve Israel’s separate identity. He points out that whenever we try to assimilate among the nations, Hashem will intervene to preserve our separate identity by arousing hatred against us.
This Divine intervention to preserve our identity is not just for our sake; it is also for the sake of the world, as our nation is to bring life to the world through fulfilling the Divine Teaching and thereby become a light to the nations. The preservation of our identity will therefore lead to the fulfillment of the following prophecy regarding our role in Zion at the dawn of the messianic age:
“Arise! Shine! For your light has arrived, and the glory of Hashem has shined upon you. For, behold! Darkness shall cover the earth and a dense cloud the kingdoms; but upon you, Hashem will shine, and His glory shall be seen upon you. Nations will go by your light, and sovereigns by the glow of your dawn.” (Isaiah 60:1-3)
Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
1. After mentioning that the Children of Israel in Egypt increased in number and became strong, the Torah adds, “and the land became full of them” (Exodus 1:7). According to the commentary of the Netziv, a leading sage of the late 19th century, this statement indicates that the Children of Israel began to settle all over Egypt and live among the Egyptians (He’emak Davar). The Netziv states that this development was a contradiction of the will of their father, Jacob, who desired that they live as a separate community in the region of Goshen, so that they could maintain their own identity and spiritual path. Through living among the Egyptians, the Children of Israel desired to be more like them, explains the Netziv, which is why they decided to neglect the mitzvah of circumcision; thus, Hashem caused the Egyptians to begin to hate the Children of Israel.
2. Regarding the unique role of the Tribe of Levi during the period when the People of Israel were in Egypt, the Midrash states:
“Even though the People of Israel served idols in Egypt, the Tribe of Levi served the Holy One, Blessed be He; moreover, they circumcised themselves. Moses therefore praised them before he died, as it is said (in the blessing of Moses to the Tribe of Levi): ‘For they have observed Your word and Your covenant they preserved’ (Deuteronomy 33:9).”
The Tribe of Levi did not engage in the process of assimilation; thus, they maintained their spiritual identity and strength. It is therefore relevant to mention that Moses, Aaron, and Miriam – the three main spiritual leaders of the Children of Israel during the Exodus – were from the Tribe of Levi. These three spiritual leaders were the children of Amram and Yocheved, who were from the Tribe of Levi (Exodus 2:1,2 and 6:16-20).
In a later prophecy which mentions Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, the Prophet Micah conveyed to our people the following Divine message regarding the role of these three leaders from the Tribe of Levi:
“For I have brought you up from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of bondage; and I sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam before you.” (Micah 6:4)
The commentator, Radak, explains that when the People of Israel were still enslaved in Egypt, Hashem sent them three prophets, Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, to inform them about the approaching redemption. The commentator, Malbim, mentions that these three leaders taught the people about the good path – Moses, as the teacher of the men, Miriam, as the teacher of the women, and Aaron as the Kohen of Hashem.
The above teaching can therefore remind us that the true leaders of our people are those who enable us to preserve our spiritual identity and thereby fulfill our spiritual mission.
3. The Midrash Tanchuma (Shmos 3) teaches that the root meanings of the names of the Twelve Tribes of Israel allude to various stages of Israel’s future redemption, and the Midrash cites various biblical verses as examples. Regarding the Tribe of Levi – whose name means “joined together” – the Midrash cites the following verse which conveys a redemptive Divine promise to the People of Zion which will be fulfilled at the dawn of the messianic age:
“Many nations shall join themselves to Hashem on that day, and they will become a people unto Me; and I will dwell in your midst.” (Zechariah 2:15)
What is the connection between the Tribe of Levi and the fulfillment of the messianic vision of nations joining themselves to Hashem? I believe that the beginning of the answer can be found in the following blessing that Moses gave to the Tribe of Levi before our people crossed the Jordan River and entered the Promised Land:
“They shall teach Your social laws to Jacob and Your Torah to Israel” (Deuteronomy 33:10).
Through teaching Torah to our people, the Levites help to preserve our spiritual identity and path so that we can fulfill our mission to inspire all the nations to join themselves to Hashem.