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Cultural Propaganda

Friday, 24 December, 2021 - 6:22 am

During the final weeks of December I am not short on parents’ complaints that they are struggling with maintaining their children’s Jewish identity in a society so engrossed in its own holiday celebrations (nor am I oblivious to the challenge my own children face at this time).  The commercialization and invasive, ubiquitous advertising – not to mention the peer pressure – makes it difficult for our children not to get caught up in the excitement that their friends, neighbors and – at times – relatives are experiencing.  In fact, it is apparently a great challenge for many adults as well.

Certainly, we celebrate the right of others to practice their faith. In fact, while we don’t particularly sanction other faiths, we also don’t proselytize because we believe in the inherent value of all peoples serving G-d.

While we can kvetch about the overreaching peddling, we may want to look in the mirror first. We have turned many Jewish festivals and rituals into commercial enterprises as well. (To be certain, there may be some fringe benefits – but that’s another topic).

How, then does one overcome the intense pressure without diluting our commitment to Judaism, our pride as Jews and our emotional freedom from the trappings surrounding us?


By no coincidence, this week we begin reading the second book of the Torah, the Book of Shemot/Exodus.  Interestingly, the two words Shemot and Exodus do not carry the same meaning. Shemot means “names,” as in the opening verse, “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt; each man and his household came with Jacob.”

Many students of the text assume that the naming of the entire book Shemot is simply a result of the first words of Chapter 1, Verse 1.  The case can be made that a more accurate description of the book – in which the Jewish people are enslaved in Egypt, ultimately liberated, receive the Torah and erect a traveling Sanctuary – would be the Greek and subsequently Anglicized version Exodus, connoting its major theme.

Let’s take a closer look at the first verse.  Why does the Torah feel the need to inform us who came to Egypt? The full list (in even greater detail) is enumerated toward the end of Genesis. It’s readily available for reference. Why the repetition?

The Midrash suggests that the Torah is not recording the names of Egypt’s first Jewish immigrants for informational purposes. It already did that.

Rather the Torah is underscoring a powerful fact.  Throughout 210 years living in a foreign land, the Jewish people refused to completely assimilate into Egyptian culture.  Though they may have strayed in some respects, they stuck to their Jewish names (as well as language and dress).  The Jewish nation was enslaved and oppressed yet managed to retain its identity – because they cherished the vital elements that defined them as Jews. (The Torah at that point was not yet given, so ritual was not a major factor).

Thus, the title Shemot, is not merely coincidental incipit, but the quintessential message of the book – the endurance of the Jewish people against all odds. It serves as the formula for continued preservation of Jewish tradition in a world tugging at us from all sides, be they tugs of hatred or tugs of love.

Taken from this perspective, we might read the opening lines as follows:

These are the names: We can be assured that our children will retain their Jewish identity (“names”) and be proud of their heritage if—

of the children of Israel: we raise them as descendants of our holy patriarchs and matriarchs, even though they—

came to Egypt: grow up in an environment that is hostile/apathetic to Jewish values.

Psychologically, the Torah is sharing a profound message about cultural pressure.  True, there is substantial pressure from society surrounding us, but we don’t only live in a horizontal experience.  We must also consider the vertical culture that surrounds us – the ancestors from whence we originate and the generations that we will create.  Suddenly, we aren’t so lonely anymore. We are in the company of many great Jews of the past, present and future.

But it won’t happen by itself.  We are reminded that just as the Jews of yesteryear needed anchors (names, language and clothes), so do we.  The more we fortify ourselves with Jewish activities and symbols, the less we are influenced by other propaganda.

And, the more certain we can be that we too will merit the Exodus – from our troubles, Antisemitism, social pressure and the long exile our people have endured.

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