Shemot: Divine Logic

Jews Are Like Olives

What is the purpose of antisemitism?

Table for Five: Shemot

In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

But the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and spread out, so that the [Egyptians] came to dread the Israelites.  – Ex. 1:12

Rabbi Aryeh Markman, Executive Director Aish LA

Any thinking Jew is bewildered by current events.  Why does the world seem threatened by Israel? Should we care? 

Antisemitism, according to Torah, is God’s way of keeping the Jews connected to one another, blunting our assimilationist tendencies and motivating us to recalculate our direction as a People.  This challenge brings out our greatness. The Talmud compares Jews to olives; the most excellent oil comes out under pressure.   

We expect the world to applaud us for being the Start-Up Nation, having a disproportional amount of Nobel Laureates, creating cutting-edge technologies to improve the quality of life and for setting up state-of-the-art field hospitals in foreign countries that have experienced a natural disaster. Instead, we are viewed as “the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites”.  We think it’s a PR problem, but it’s a “Who are you trying to impress problem”. 

It’s outlandish to compare Hamas to Israel. One side documents its barbarism while the other puts its soldiers in danger to save the lives of “innocent civilians”.  Meanwhile Israel is being threatened with curtailment of military resupplies if we don’t endanger ourselves even more for said “innocents”.  And yet the world continues to disparage us.  Conundrum indeed!  

The message?  Our Patriarch Jacob promised that God will bless our population growth despite the Egyptian exile. So too, Jacob promised that God will protect us if we live as proud Jews following the Torah. May He save us from the hatred that encircles us, but which reminds us of our Jewish identity. 

Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe, Institute for American and Talmudic Law

All those who throughout history sought power, wealth, and perceived security through the degradation, subjugation, and destruction of other humans have relied upon two key sets of premises:

One – Constant contempt and intrusive control over people’s lives and labor causes them to lose a sense of agency. This then causes the oppressed to value their own selves less and internalize that contempt, so they no longer have hopes, aspirations, and belief in their destiny flowing from a sense of self-worth.

Two – The oppressed become invisible: Part of the background, without influence. In the case of the Children of Israel in Egypt neither was the case. They had as many children as possible and brought them up with a sense of pride and identity – rejecting the values of Egyptian society. Though slaves, they didn’t embrace the value system of their oppressors but maintained pride and a sense of the superiority of their heritage. The Midrash writes “They did not change their names, clothing, or language”.

A close translation of the verse’s Hebrew reads: “As they were oppressed so they became greater (in their self-worth as well as number) and so they broke out (of their invisibility)”.

This defies the rules of oppression and power, confounding the Egyptians. This begins a pattern of G-d ensuring the Jewish people constantly negate the rules of history and the agendas of the worshipers of power and the enthusiasts of atrocity. And so it shall be again and again until “Evil passes from the Earth.”

Denise Berger, Miracle in Minutiae columnist & freelance writer

On the surface, this seems totally counter-intuitive. The more the Egyptians oppressed [the Israelites]… the Egyptians came to dread them. The Hebrew word that’s used here is “vayakutzu”, from the word “kotz”, thorn. The Egyptians felt stung by thorns in the face of the Israelites. Wouldn’t we expect the Israelites to be the ones feeling thorned, suffering under escalating oppression?

The middle of this passage explains what the Egyptians found so bothersome. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by Egyptian dominance, their intended victims responded by increasing and spreading out. They didn’t roll over in submission. They didn’t wither. Nor did they lash out in rage, rioting through Cairo. They just lived the best lives they could under the circumstances.

The purpose of oppression is to assert power, and the ability to control other people is one of the most accurate measures of success in that pursuit. Had the Children of Israel become downtrodden, it would confirm to those in charge that their position was secure. This was undoubtedly the desired effect. The Egyptian leadership may have even anticipated some sort of violent backlash, which although unpleasant, would still affirm their status as the focus of the narrative.

The last thing the ruling class expected was for Bnei Yisrael to flourish. They were supposed to cower, not grow. This simple refusal to yield has been a source of dread to seekers of power throughout history, from the Egyptians to the United Nations and everyone in between. Am Yisrael Chai.

Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, Associate Dean, Ziegler School at AJU

As we begin the Book of Exodus, our ancestors face a tumultuous world. Joseph, his brothers, and the entire generation died after settling in Egypt. A new king arose, one that knew not Joseph. The Israelites were enslaved, forced into hard labor. And, according to our verse, the more the Israelites were oppressed, the more they increased, leading to more dread, more hatred, and enslavement at the hands of the Egyptians.

From then until now, we have faced those who sought to destroy us and we have certainly felt and feel the affliction. As Jews, our history is a testament to facing adversity and transforming it into something of meaning. Time after time, we have faced those who wish harm and refused to give in. With determination, we have persisted to transform weakness to strength, darkness to light, slavery to freedom.

The eighteenth-century commentator, Or Hachaim, draws on mystical ideas from the Zohar to offer an important insight. When one must endure persecution and troubles, he says, the good is distilled from the evil allowing the good qualities to burst forth – gaining visibility with God and with people.

From within persecution, we find the shining light. It is this distillation of goodness that fueled some of the most powerful renewal and rebirth in the wake of historical tragedies. And, as we face some of the strongest Jew hatred of all times, it also remains key to discovering the fuel for new forms of collective identity and expression.

Gilla Nissan, Judaic Studies and Meditation Teacher, Author, Poet

“…and as they will oppress him more, so will he multiply and break through boundaries and they (the Egyptians) will dread the Children of Israel…”

This is nothing but an historic prophetic model of the soul and life of the Jewish people. Good that is destined to come to the world cannot be destroyed! In fact the opposite happens: it will increase in power.

This verse or an expression is indeed a paradox. How, as you become increasingly oppressed, do you gain more power?

The one word found only in Hebrew to describe this phenomenon is “dav’ka”meaning “against all odds.” Torah always surprises us with a logic beyond the ordinary logic — a divine logic. Through contradictions and paradoxes, Torah teaches us to think differently, in a paradoxical way, beyond the ordinary. Why? To prepare us not only to stand before life challenges but to trust the hashgacha/providence of HaShem – which is called Lev Hashem: a higher power that can turn things upside down.

Perhaps it is a call to empower us to always expect miracles. Miracles are laws that descend from a higher world to manifest here. They are perceived as miracles only on earth.

And all of this psycho drama, called the Exodus from Egypt which is read throughout our history, is for one and only reason: “So that they know that I AM the Lord.”

Image: Israelites building Egyptian cities (detail), from Hispono-Moresque Haggadah

With thanks to Rabbi Aryeh Markman, Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe, Denise Berger, Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, and Gilla Nissan

Get the best of Accidental Talmudist in your inbox: sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Share to

You Might Also Like

Sign Me Up

Sign me up!

Our newsletter goes out about twice a month, with links to our most popular posts and episodes.