How do we live in multiple civilizations?


By Rabbah Arlene Berger
Special to WJW

This week’s Torah portion is Parshat Vayigash, Genesis 44:18–47:27.

In Vayigash, we meet Jacob and sons as they go down to Egypt to escape a famine.
When they arrive in Egypt, they reunite with Joseph and the family is made complete again. They were given a new home, a land and a future. We learn this from the final verse in Vayigash: Thus Israel settled in the country of Egypt, in the region of Goshen; vaye’achazu va, and were fertile and increased greatly (Genesis 47:27).

What is the meaning of vaye’achazu va? Some, Rashi (12th century, France) included, translate it to simply mean that they acquired something material: land or possessions. Others, including the Or HaChaim (18th century, Morocco), interpret vaye’achazu va to mean that they were not the possessors of the land, but were possessed by it.

Rabbeynu Bachya (14th century, Spain) translates vaye’achazu va as meaning that “they acquired property in it.” He notes that the word vaye’achazu suggests “the acquisition of permanent, hereditary property.”

He says that the passive form of the word vaye’achazu means that “instead of becoming masters of that soil they became enslaved to it. The word is reminiscent of something taking root.”

He concludes that the reason the Torah earlier had written “these are the names of the Israelites who came to Egypt” [46:8], is because only that generation was still “master” of its destiny. Later generations became “possessed” by the land instead of actively possessing it.

The Chasidic master Kedushat Levi (18th century, Eastern Europe) takes an opposing view to Rabbeynu Bachya. He teaches an alternate meaning of veye’achazu, namely that it means the Israelites — ”adopted,” i.e. were taken captive by, the prevailing — cultural values of the Egyptians. But here, the meaning is that they were — able to sublimate these values and yet remain Yisrael at the — same time.

What Rabbeynu Bachya describes is a process of assimilation. Kedushat Levi describes a process that is a form of acculturation, of choosing which cultural traits or social patterns of those around us that we want to adopt and make uniquely Jewish. This is one of the tactics that has enabled Judaism to survive over time. With each country Jews live in, with each move Jews makes, they must decide what path they will walk.

The relevance of this teaching is clear, especially in this time of year when many deal with different variations of the “December dilemma,” though in reality the dilemma for some is never ending. How do we walk as Jews in a society that is overtly not-Jewish? What does being Jewish mean to each of us and how can we sit comfortably with the understanding that we don’t all think, feel, believe in the same way? How do we act like our ancestors in Egypt and, as Kedushat Levi taught, analyze and pick among the prevailing values to yet remain part of the Jewish Project?

One way to begin is to know our history and the foundations of our people. Our sages gave us a great gift in having us read a weekly Torah portion year after year. Whether or not one believes in all the Torah says is not at issue. What is at issue is that we learn from the examples of our ancestors (like the Israelites in Egypt) and the stories of tradition and use this knowledge as a basis for our personal ethics and values. By doing this we can strive to live fully and completely in multiple civilizations, as Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (20th century, United States) taught when writing about living as both Jews and Americans.

Rabbah Arlene Berger is the rabbi of the Fauquier Jewish Congregation in Warrenton, and a community chaplain.

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