There were three stages of the Israelites’ exile in Egypt: גרות-being a foreigner, עבדות-slavery, and עינוי-affliction. As we saw in the previous weeks’ Parshiot, the Israelites only intended to temporarily live in the Land of Egypt (ג.ו.ר) and remain foreigners in the land. However, they began to feel comfortable there, settled there (ש.ו.ב)and felt bound to the land (א.ח.ז.).
The first stage of exile, גרות, didn’t last very long as the Israelites soon adapted to their new environment. It was this feeling of routine that led to the second stage of the Israelites’ exile- עבדות. However, the Israelite’s slavery wasn’t JUST slavery, it is described as “back breaking” and “harsh”.
וַיַּעֲבִדוּ מִצְרַיִם אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּפָרֶךְ:
So the Egyptians enslaved the children of Israel with back breaking labour.
The only other time the root פ.ר.כ appears in Tanakh, is in the word פרוכת - the curtain separating the Holy of Holies from the Sanctuary in the Tabernacle. From this we can see, that the wordבְּפָרֶךְ contains a connotation of separation. The second stage of exile, עבדות separated the Israelites from other Egyptian citizens, making them slaves with no civil or political rights. The Israelites were isolated.
It is interesting to notice, that the separation and isolation of the Israelites occurred once the Israelites were settled and comfortable in Egypt. The Israelites had forgotten the first stage of their exile גרות and needed to be reminded that they were still foreigners. This isolation, this בְּפָרֶךְ- reminded the Israelites that they were different, they had their own homeland, and they were foreigners in Egypt.
This concept of isolation and being different, is one of the defining characteristics of the Jewish people throughout the millennium. After the Israelites are redeemed from Egypt, G-d tells them through Moses
וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ לִי מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ
And you shall be to Me a kingdom of princes and a holy nation.’
The root ק.ד.ש also has a connotation of isolation and separation. For example, Shabbat, is the holiest day of the week and it is ‘set aside’ and ‘different’ to all the other days of the week. The Jewish people, the “holy nation” are also set aside and different.
Menachem Begin would hold a Parsha Shiur at his house every Shabbat. At one such Shiur, he talked about the identity of the Jewish people and the very fact that we are separate, that we are different. He explained that the reason that the Jews are separate is not because there is only one Jewish state in the world or because Hebrew is the official language of one country in the world but because we are something unique a “nation-faith” –. This means that we are not just a nation – the Jewish People, but also a religion – Judaism. One cannot be a member of Am Yisrael without being Jewish, and one cannot be Jewish without being part of Am Yisrael. The two MUST go together. If we assimilate, if we forget our religion, if we forget that we are foreigners in a foreign land, if we become comfortable in a foreign land; we cease to be different and we cease to exist.
The back breaking Egyptian slavery was not just to remind us that we’re different…but happened BECAUSE we are different. The Egyptians enslaved the Israelites BECAUSE they were foreigners, and because, as foreigners they had no rights. The actual root of the עבדות, was the גרות, and the mistaken notion that foreigners have no rights.
In contrast to the Egyptian way of thinking, the Torah’s laws ALWAYS protect the rights of strangers. 24 times throughout the Torah, whenever the Torah discusses a person’s rights, the stranger, the foreigner, is given special protection.
The measure of justice in a country, is not measured by the rights attained by the rich, native, well-connected people, but by the justice given to the unprotected stranger. One of the basic ideas of Jewish law is complete equality of the native and the stranger.
R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote in his commentary on this phrase
In Jewish Law, the homeland does not grant human rights; rather, human rights grant the homeland! Jewish law does not distinguish between human rights and citizens’ rights.
R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch unfortunately died long before the re-establishment of the State of Israel; but as Jews, we can be proud to say, how relevant a description, his words are to the Jewish state.
In the one Jewish state in the world, anyone can receive Israeli citizenship, anyone with Israeli citizenship can run for Parliament, be a Supreme Court Judge, receive a tertiary education etc! 20% of Israeli’s population is Arab, and they are represented in our governmental, legal, military, law enforcement, education and medical systems!
In a neighbourhood where abuse of human rights, civil rights and political rights is rampant, Israel a safe haven and a “light unto the nations”.
As Jews in Israel, we must remember our own history. Our own abuse, exile, and discrimination. We must be a “light unto the nations” and remain a proud upholder of human, civil and political rights for all - as Jewish Law requires us.
However, as Jews in the Diaspora, we must remember that we are different, we are separate. We must not become overly comfortable in our host countries, and remember that we have an eternal homeland that is waiting for us.
PM Netanyahu addresses International Human Rights day 2011
"Go live in Syria for a year. Then tell me how you feel."