Parshat Bo ( Exodus Ch. 10 -13 ) The Alien and the Unaffiliated
A Jewish peddler walks into a Shtetl in the Old World and is dismayed to see that nobody talks to him, nobody pays any attention to him, and nobody is ready to offer him any assistance.
He then goes to the middle of the town square and blasts out in Yiddish: Gevalt, Men harget yiden!” “Help! They are killing Jews!”
Suddenly the whole town comes running to find out what the horrible news and they demand of him,” Where is the danger?!”
Oh, he replies, don’t you know the only way to get a Jew’s attention is by screaming “Gevalt.”
That is true for so many issues that we have to deal with in American Jewish life—we often deal with it when we feel threatened.
A short time ago, a study was released by Pew Research, which, quite reasonably led many of us to cry “ Gevalt!”. I will get to that concern after a digression into our Torah portion.
Today, in the portion of Bo, we have the last plagues and the Children of Israel set out from slavery to redemption.
This is the great event in our consciousness--the event of the liberation from Egypt. It is the Birth of a Nation.
At the end of this reading, we are given a set of distinct instructions for both the first Exodus and for all future commemorations of this earthshaking event.
There are two terms similar in sound used in here that apply to our issue. Look at Ex:.12: 44 Ben nechar lo yochal bo--No alien shall eat of the Pesach offering until he undergoes circumcision to show that he has entered into the covenant of Abraham. The word for alien here is ” nechar”, from which we have the common Hebrew term for non-Jew- Nochri, the alien.
Another word is closely associated with it in this portion, the word karet-cut off. Turn back to Ch 12:19
Ki kol ochel mahmetzet, ve nikhreta hanefesh hahi me-adat yisrael-“ whoever eats that which is leaven, that person shall be cut off from the people of Israel.” Nikhretah-he will be cut off. To refuse to participate in this great national commemoration is to be cut off from the nation and from God.
The alien, nochri, must enter the covenant of circumcision, to partake in the Passover, while the Hebrew who refuses to partake in the Passover has cut himself off, nichrat, made alien. One goes in, the other goes out; one joins, one leaves. The two words share two letters of the 3 letter root word. That’s the beauty of Hebrew grammar.
[An aside refresher for those who forgot their Hebrew grammar. Basic Hebrew words, as in all Semitic languages, have a 3-consonant root. To this one adds prefix, suffix, and vowel sounds to make create an immense vocabulary of verbs and nouns. Sometimes, words may drop one of the consonants or double a consonant to add to the variety and confusion of determining what the root is.]
These same two concepts, nekhar, the alien, and nichrat, cut off, alienated, also appear in the command for circumcision given to Abraham--look back to Bereshit 17:10-14. Abraham is commanded to have all the males in his entourage circumcised--including those ben nekhar asher lo mizarakha hu "the son of the alien who is not of your descent," and further down--whoever , male, in your entourage, who does not have himself circumcised, vnikhreta hanefesh hahi meameha--et briti hefar--that soul is cut off from your people, he has annulled my covenant.”
Why do I want to bring your attention to the interplay between these two words. Why do all this switching back and forth?
These are peculiar words.
Someone once tried to explain the Arabic language--a relative of Hebrew. Every word has three meanings . It means what it means, it means just the opposite, and it means something about camels. The Hebrew version is the same without the camel ( and some may say that we just substitute a chicken for the camel).
These words that I am throwing out --nekher-alien and nikhrat-cut off-both mean what they mean and mean just the opposite. One is rooted in the consonants nun-chaf-resh—the root for knowing someone, the other chaf-resh-taf, the root for cutting. The words mean what they mean and mean the opposite and they are used in this portion in tandem.
The word-nikhrat, is the passive of karat,cut off. In the sense of cutting off, it is used for divorce, for example,sefer kritut, a book of cutting off, eliminating, sending away, or for example , karet, the ultimate punishment in the Bible, being removed from the community and from the presence of God, a fate worse than death.
It also means its opposite! It means to bring close, to bind permanently--it is used to make a binding covenant. likhrot brit, to cut a treaty, as- when nations enter permanent alliance, or when Abraham makes his covenant with God, or when the children of Israel stand at Sinai. The word used is--koret brit--to cut, to make, a covenant.
The other word is-nekhar--the root of alien, to foreign, as in ben nekhar. In the sense of lehitnaker ,a reflexive verb, it is to make oneself a stranger. It means to hide from recognition, or to ignore.
It also means its very opposite, in the form hiker, recognize, be familiar with, know someone.
Joseph sees his brothers vayakirem vayitnaker, he recognizes them, Yakir, and he pretends not to know them, yitnaker. Known and unknown in the same root word in the same sentence and the same breath!.
In our Torah reading. we read of the alien who may not partake of the Passover offering, but the one who is the most alien is not one who is born a stranger, but one who is known to us, one who has been brought up as a Jew, and has chosen to hide from his people and his God. Not a just an alien, but an absolute, committed alien, a Jew who has gone rogue.
Thus, the ancient translations and commentaries reinterpret this verse to mean: The alien here is the son of an Israelite who has left us, who has undergone shmat, abandonment of Judaism . It is interpreted as such in the Targum Onkelos, the Mekhilta, and in the father of all commentaries—Rashi. This is the ben nekhar asher betokh yisrael--the alien who is among the children of Israel--arel lev-uncircumcised of heart--for he has been alienated from the Torah and from his father in heaven as much as the uncircumcised in the flesh, the non-Jew.
We have, then two types which define the Jewish situation today:
We have the non-Jew, ben nekhar, the alien, who choses to become a Jew--instead of nekhar-alien, he becomes a nikar-known to us, known to our tradition. The Jewish people in ancient times was composed of vast numbers of foreigners, strangers, who chose to become Jews. Entire communities and even peoples were known to have converted to Judaism at one time or other:-the Berbers of North Africa, the nation of Palmyra in what is today Iraq, the kingdom of the Khazars in the Crimea. Even today, there is a significant number of people who become Jews by choice.
I have officiated at many conversions I can testify to many non-Jews who have made Judaism their religion by Choice.
But I am very disturbed by, as I mentioned at the start, the Gevalt, the statistics.
A few months ago, there was the release of a major survey of American Jews attitudes and affiliations, down by the Pew Research Center. The results were very shocking. In short, it portrayed a movement down the ladder of Jewish dedication and commitment, which went, in order—children of Orthodox moved to Conservative, children of Conservative moved to Reform, children of reform moved to non-religious and non-affiliated, and children of the latter—dropped off the radar.
Here is a summary:
“ One in five American Jews now describe themselves religiously as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.” In this survey, this group of Jews is called “Jews of no religion” because they have no particular religion although they have direct Jewish ancestry ( at least one Jewish parent) and consider themselves Jewish or partly Jewish.”
These same Jews tend to have smaller families and they tend to marry out of the religion by almost 80%. Two thirds of these Jews say they are not raising their children in any Jewish way!
Do some simple arithmetic: 66% of this 20% is 13% of all Jews whose children disappear form the community.Now, start compounding.Outof 100 Jews today, 87 Jews tomorrow. One generation further, and we are at 75, then 65, then 57. We add to this, however, a potentially increased amount of marriage out, as the pool of Jews to choose from shrinks, especially among generally highly educated Jews, while the number holds its own or grows somewhat among those Jews who we might say, man the barricades against all modernity at all costs.
This is a very hairy future for us, in which the Orthdoox alone, while small, are holding their own, primarily by high birth rate and successful Jewish education, but what of the rest of us?
My glimmer of hope in all this doom and gloom is that there is what my father used to call, ”Dos pintele Yid”.” Yid”, Yiddish for Jew, starts with the Hebrew letter , “pintele”, Yud.”Pintele” is the smallest unit in Yiddish, a tiny spot, a fleck, a micron. In Chasidic lore, there is, in every Jew, every Yid, no matter how lost, a pintele Yid, a tiny fleck of a Jew, that remains, never disappears, and like a tiny spark, with the right fuel, can burn bright.
We are, as one wit has put it, not the Eternal People, but the Eternally Dying people. We have been written off in the textbooks of history many times, 586 BCE, 70 CE, at the beginning of the European Enlightenment, at the heyday of Marxism, and in 1964, on the cover of Look Magazine, The Vanishing American Jew. “Look” who vanished?!
I have come across many whose parents had hidden the fact of their being Jews for a variety of reasons, most commonly, to spare their child of the torments and persecution of anti-Semites or because of disdain for all religion. At some point, the Pintele Yid, the hidden Jew still burns, and that person makes his return—the alienated is no longer nochri, alien, and is back in the fold of the brit, the covenant, nikhrat, cut and sealed, of Abraham with God.
Herein , is my faith, despite the Pew report, that there is a pintele Yid, the tiny Yid, hidden, that never vanishes. It is up to us to provide the fuel to make the tiny spark turn into a flame.
Those who are ben nekhar--children of the alien--who wish to come into our midst-to become part and parcel of the Jewish people--we welcome gladly. At the same time, let us do all that is in our abilities, to take the one who has been alienated, nikhrat, from our people, and reach out, bring in , bring in to a community and a fellowship of compassion and harmony. Amen.