The Same But Different by Rabbi Howard Jachter

1996/5756

            The opening pasuk of פרשת שמות is worded in a puzzling manner - ואלה שמות בני ישראל הבאים מצרימה את יעקב איש וביתו באו, "These are the names of Bnei Yisrael who are coming to Egypt with (see אונקלוס) Yaakov, they came with their families."  It is quite surprising for the Torah in Parshat Shemot to start off describing the arrival of Bnei Yisrael to Mitzraim in the present tense.  The מדרש רבה explains that the Torah uses the present tense to teach us the way that the Egyptians viewed Bnei Yisrael.  The Egyptians viewed Bnei Yisrael as if they had just arrived in מצרים, despite the fact that the Jews had arrived decades earlier and had contributed so much to the Egyptian economy and culture.  Nonetheless, they were treated like outsiders by the Egyptians.  We saw a similar attitude displayed by the Germans in this century.  The Germans ignored the many centuries during which Jews had been living in their country and the disproportionate contributions that Jews made to Germany.

             Yet, at the conclusion of this pasuk, the Torah describes Bnei Yisrael as having arrived - in the past tense - in Egypt, איש וביתו באו.  How can we explain the sudden change to the past?  Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik explains that the Jewish people had indeed come to Mitzraim and were partially integrated into the society.  On the other hand, the Torah emphasizes that they had not been integrated into the Egyptian culture - הבאים מצרימה, they also perceived themselves as not integrated into society.

                This tension is similarly reflected in Avraham's statement to the בני חת at the beginning of פרשת חיי שרה.  Avraham told his Hittite neighbors, גר ותושב אנכי עמכם, that he considered himself to be both a stranger and resident amongst them.  A Jew is forever supposed to follow this example.  On one hand, we are part of the general society.  We share universal goals of contributing to mankind's welfare in scientific, economic and certain cultural endeavors.  However, we are different in many ways from the rest of the world.  Our lifestyle is unique and our covenant's obligation and destiny separate us from our non-Jewish neighbors.

                The challenge for us is to maintain a healthy balance between these obligations.  We must fully discharge our covenant's obligation to G-d and the Jewish people.  At the same time, we must be respectful to non-Jews and seek to make a positive contribution to the world in general.  If we succeed in this challenge, we will be regarded as worthy bearers of the tradition of אברהם and שרה as well as our other אבות and אמהות. 

In Vitro Fertilization by Rabbi Howard Jachter

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