Home they go and say, “An Egyptian man saved us from the hand of the shepherds and he drew water for us” (Ex. 2:19).
They do not call him an Israelite; they have no idea he is a descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, that his parents were Amram and Yocheved, or that he is a person of principle. All we hear is that he is an Egyptian man.
How did they know he was Egyptian? They must have seen Egyptian characteristics – clothes, speech, mannerisms.
And this raises a fascinating modern question. It is usually obvious that an Australian Jew is Australian, a South African Jew a South African, an American Jew an American. Most of us are recognisable with minimal difficulty. A visitor only needs to say “Shabbat Shalom” and you immediately know where they come from.
But Pinchas Peli points out that in the USA Jews are the only ethnic group who are referred to as “American Jews”, unlike other groups who are called “Italian Americans” or “Irish Americans”.
Stating our geography before our Jewishness may be a semantic accident, but it is more likely that it arose out of Jewish ambiguity in the Diaspora.
Peli recounts the story of David Ben Gurion meeting Leon Blum, the former prime minister of France. Blum lost no time in saying he was “first of all a Frenchman, then a socialist and only then a Jew”. Ben Gurion retorted, “It is quite all right, Monsieur Blum; you most likely know that in Hebrew we read from right to left…!”
The question addressed in this exchange was which part of one’s identity was uppermost.
Once, finding a way through two worlds led some to emphasise one, some the other. Today more and more people are comfortable with both sides of their identity. We are Jewish – and Australian; Australian – and Jewish. But the question remains: what do I mention first – Australian” or “Jew”? Perhaps the order does not matter?
There are two issues – whether my geography is good for my Jewishness and vice-versa, and what to do if geography threatens Jewishness.
Judaism goes well with an enlightened, democratic society. More: the history, flavour and even climate of a country all influence its Judaism, as do its values; a tragic illustration is Hermann Cohen’s insistence early this century that the German and the Jewish ethos were alike and akin. More accurate is the Anglo-Jewish belief that British and Jewish principles go well together.
The problem is when the policies of a given country are ethically questionable.
The Tanya, in dealing with distracting or “opposing” thoughts during prayer, says such thoughts should not ruin one’s concentration but evoke even greater determination to pray properly. Similarly in a culture like ancient Egypt (and there are modern equivalents), a Jew should work all the more on being be a good Jew and raising the ethical quality of society.