What toll have the wanderings of the Jews taken on our traditional psyche? What consequences have there been to our spiritual and cultural identities as a result of centuries of globetrotting, usually out of urgent necessity rather than choice? Clearly, there must have been many dramatic and discernible effects. Today, in our own freely chosen migrations it behooves us to learn the lessons of our history.
This week’s Parsha, Vayigash, tells the story of Yossef’s reunion with his family after some two decades away from them. He is now viceroy of Egypt. He sends for his father, Yaakov, and the rest of the family, promising to support them all during the days of famine that were then gripping the region. Yaakov agrees to go down to Egypt but needs some Divine reassurance. G-d provides such encouragement telling Yaakov to have no fear of descending to the land of the Pharaohs.
Why was Yaakov so fearful and what did he do to
deal with his anxieties?
Rabbinical commentaries offer a variety of answers. He was reluctant to leave the holy land and its special heavenly presence. Egypt was infamous as a morally depraved society. He was afraid of losing his children to an alien culture. He was already old and did not want to be buried in Egypt. Concerning all the above, G-d reassured Yaakov.
But there was something particularly significant that he did before leaving. He sent Yehudah to establish the first Jewish school for the children. Yaakov took what he considered to be a vital precaution to prevent any assimilation in Egypt. How best could he guarantee Jewish continuity and the spiritual and moral protection of his grandchildren? There could be no better way, no more effective tool than Jewish education. So Yehudah formed the advance guard on the way down to the challenging cultural melting pot of Egypt.
Sadly, we know of too many children of pious European parents whose children did not fare well (in a Jewish sense) in the US. As religiously committed as their parents may have been, young people born and/or bred in the United States of the early to mid 20th century were all too often swept away by the dominant culture of the great melting pot. They were quickly “Americanized” and in the process jettisoned their parental values to embrace the popular culture of a tantalizing new world. It was the exceptional parent who was able to offer any meaningful resistance to this powerful societal trend. Few were creative enough to successfully communicate old world values in the context of the new social order.
Socially, professionally and economically, those young people did very well indeed and in one generation became educated and successful though their parents were illiterate immigrants. But in a Jewish sense? Not many managed the transition very well. Those who remained faithful to their ancestors’ way of life were generally those whose parents worried enough to do something about it. Who survived spiritually in the end? Only those whose parents ensured a meaningful Jewish upbringing for their children, both in school and at home. It wasn’t easy but there were the moral heroes and heroines who stood out at the risk of ridicule by the majority.
Yaakov worried in Egypt, our grandparents worried in Europe and we need to worry today. History has shown that unless we are concerned enough to translate our anxieties into action, the children of Israel may become disenchanted and mesmerized by prevailing civilizations. May we all have the strength to put work into the aspirations we have for our future generations and may we enjoy yiddishe nachas now and always.