The desire to assimilate is probably the most difficult temptation any Jew faces living in America today. On one hand, we want to be a part of the culture around us and not seen as anything less or different. On the other hand, we feel some sort of responsibility to carry on that heritage that was handed over to us, albeit possibly because of responsibility, guilt, or some fondness from something in childhood. We may think this conflict of identity is unique to our generation, but the truth is that it dates all the way back to ancient Egypt, starting with this week’s parsha.
The Jews have been in Egypt for several years now and have assimilated into every facet of Egyptian society. Pharaoh, feeling threatened by their numbers, institutes decrees reducing them to the status of slaves. Still feeling threatened, Pharaoh calls for the death of all Hebrew newborn males.
Yocheved, a Hebrew slave, having recently given birth to a boy, puts him in a basket and sets him in the Nile river in hopes for his salvation. Obviously, this is Moses. He’s found by the daughter of Pharaoh and he is raised as a prince of Egypt.
Once a fully grown adult, Moses starts to see the way his people are being treated and it bothers him. On one particular day he witnesses an Egyptian mercilessly beating a Hebrew slave. Moses kills the attacker and that starts a chain of events which will lead to Moses abandoning both his princely status and his Jewish heritage as he escapes into the desert.
I started out with the notion of assimilation. In most cases, once a culture assimilates into another culture, the idea is that a hybrid culture will emerge. The good old American melting pot. But the more likely outcome is that the larger culture will swallow up the smaller culture leading to their disappearance. (Or at best incorporating some bastardized version of the traditions.) But that didn’t happen with the Jews in Egypt. Why?
The Talmud says the Jews assimilated in every possible way (food, employment, community) with the exception of three things. Their names, their language, and their dress. Today we have tremendous issues with identity. Identity theft, gender identity, Facebook identity, racial identity, political correctness, and an effort to abandon almost all labels in some cases. But really what is one’s identity? What does identity even mean?
Rabbi Denbo has a great definition for identity. It is grasping the essence of one’s uniqueness through understanding of their differences within the context of similarities. I know that’s a mouth full, so let me walk you though it. To understand your essence, pointing out all the ways you’re different from a giraffe doesn’t really paint a picture of your uniqueness. Now if you ask a mother of two twin girls how her daughters are different, you will get an exceptional understanding of both twins’ unique attributes. So what Rabbi Denbo is saying is that when you see two things that are very similar, and you understand how they are different, that’s understanding essence and thus identity.
Once you have an understanding of your own uniqueness, you then have the tools to express it. How? Name, language, and dress. In Judaism, names aren’t arbitrary but an expression of your essence. In a more direct relation, your name is the first way you understand yourself. (Me looking at me.) Language is an articulation of your essence. You can tell so much about a person by how they talk; where they’re from, their education, even their intelligence to some degree. (Me interacting with the world outside of me). And finally dress is your visual representation of that essence. (How the world looks back at me.) The Jews in Egypt refused to give these up, and for that, they kept their Jewish identity.
Seeing the Inside Outside.
So now we have Moses struggling with this very problem. He’s been running from his Jewish identity for years (contrary to movie versions of this story, Moses did know he was a Hebrew pretty early on and was in fact raised by his mother as a wet nurse for Pharaoh’s daughter.) He’s becoming bothered by the treatment of his brethren when he finally comes across an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave.
Now it came to pass in those days that Moses grew up and went out to his brothers and looked at their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man of his brothers. He turned this way and that way, and he saw that there was no man; so he struck the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. Shemos 2: 11-12
The simple understanding is that Moses couldn’t bear to see his brother being beaten, he looked around, saw the coast was clear, and saved him. But what’s with “He turned this way and that way.” What a weird way to say he looked around. The Hebrew here for “this way and that way” is כֹּה֙ וָכֹ֔ה, coh veh coh. But it’s odd, coh veh coh, isn’t a directional language. The more literal translation would be “he looked such as and such as.” Rabbi Denbo points out an amazing insight.
When Moses looks “this way and that way, ” he’s looking internally at his dual identity. I look one way and I see myself as an Egyptian and I look another way and I see myself as a Jew. Then he realizes this internal struggle being played out in front of him, his Egyptian side fighting his Hebrew side. And his Egyptian side is killing his Jewish side. “And he saw that there was no man.” It is at that moment that Moses understands that if I don’t stand up for who I am, then who I am will be destroyed.
Man-Bat vs. Batman
Now many of us believe that we can be a hybrid, multiple identities living harmoniously. But a 50/50 or even split is rare and, in reality, one aspect is the core of the individual. Look at superheroes. Spider-Man, Batman, Iron Man. The MAN is what they are at the core, and the Spider/Bat/Iron is the flavor of their character. To reverse the order would be monstrous.
The Jews of Egypt had a clear line about what they were willing to compromise on. Moses saw his compromises as toxic and could no longer continue with them. What each of us have to do is reflect on what our identity is, what it means to us, and be clear about whether we are a Jewish American or an American Jew. To be otherwise would be an unreconciled identity and we may find that a valuable part of that identity is taken without us even realizing it.