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The Symposium •
Selecting a TopicI: Assimilation and IdentityIn Small NumbersIsrael Resided There and Became a Great NationThey Did Not Change Their ApparelThere Israel Became a Nation — DistinctiveII: Antisemitism and PrejudiceThe Egyptians 'Badmouthed' Our LoyaltyBeware of the Fifth ColumnPrejudice and IA Rabbi Combats the Nazi Image of the JewIII: Ancient Egyptian OppressionRameses II (1290-1224 B.C.E. • Midrash: Filling in the GapsIV: From Resignation to Resistance"Our Oppression": Slavery and Patience"We Cried Out: The Power of a GroanHope is Saying "No!"Internal ExileTears to Hide Our TearsV: Sexuality and LiberationZPG — Zero Population GrowthSexuality and Liberation/Women's Resistance The Bedrooms of IsraelDiscriminationVI: Suffering and its LessonsPharaoh's AdviceGod's AdviceGiving a Helping Hand"Even Harsher"

The Symposium: Selecting a Topic

The Rabbinic treatment of the “Wandering Aramean” story raises several provocative themes for debate. You may wish to choose just one theme. Read the Rabbinic midrash and the contemporary sidebars and then open the topic to discussion.
     1. Assimilation and Identity (see page 82)
Did the Jews succeed in resisting assimilation to Egyptian culture? How does a minority preserve its identity?
     2. Anti-Semitism and Prejudice (see page 84)
How do antisemitic stereotypes function both in the minds of the oppressors and on the self-image of the Jews?
     3. Ancient Egyptian Oppression (see page 86)
What was the historical nature of Egyptian slavery? How did the Rabbis conceive of spirit-crushing “harsh labor”?
     4. From Resignation to Resistance (see page 88)
What is the turning point at which slaves wake up to their fate and begin to hope?
     5. Sexuality and Liberation (see page 88)
How is sexual oppression related to the struggle for political liberation?
     6. Suffering and its Lessons (see page 95)
Does suffering make us more empathetic to others? When does it make us vengeful or insensitive or apathetic?    
     Another Symposium possibility is Should We Feel Joy at the Downfall of Our Enemies, page 100

Symposium I:
Assimilation and Identity

In Small Numbers
How Big Is Israel?
Pharaoh’s unfounded fears of the Jewish minority’s power and size bring to mind the following incident. The Israeli Foreign Ministry sends high school juniors to represent Israel to their non-Jewish age-mates worldwide. In England in 1995 the presentation began with the following question: “How big would you say Israel is compared to England?” Most English high school students answered: “Oh, perhaps ten times as big but at least twice as big.” They were shocked to learn that it was only one-tenth the size of Great Britain, equivalent to Wales. (Perhaps the inordinate press coverage devoted to Israel with 300 resident international journalists contributes to the exaggerated estimates).
When adults in England were asked for the percentage of Jews in their country, they guessed between 10-20%, even though the Jews comprise less than 1/2%. Worldwide the Jews were 250,000,000, they guessed, when in fact they are only 13,000,000 and shrinking towards 12,000,000 by 2020 C.E.  top of Symposium I   top of page

"Israel Resided There and Became There a Nation"
Did They Assimilate in Egypt?
Two Views

According to the Haggadah’s midrash, Israel maintained its cultural distinctiveness in Egypt by holding on to some basic facets of their national identity: “Israel was redeemed from Egypt through the merit of four things: they didn’t change their names, they didn’t forget their native language, they didn’t reveal their secrets, and they didn’t cease circumcision” (Midrash Shocher Tov 114).
However, not all the Rabbis agreed on this point. According to another midrash, it was the very desire of the people of Israel to assimilate which aroused the anger of the native peoples. The midrash explains that when Joseph died (Ex 1:6), Israel stopped circumcising their sons. They said, “Let’s be like the Egyptians!” As soon as they did this, God allowed the affection with which the Egyptians had held Israel to turn into hatred, as it says: “He changed their hearts to hate His people” (Ps. 105:25). So Pharaoh acted as “one who did not know Joseph” (Ex 1:8; Ex. Rabbah) top of Symposium I   top of page

They Did Not Change Their Apparel
A HASSID of Rabbi David Moses of Chortkov came to the rabbi dressed in a short jacket and wearing a regular hat, unlike the custom of the Hassidim. The rabbi looked at him sharply and asked: “Why did you change your dress?”
The Hassid apologized: “I moved to one of the large cities of Western Europe, and there, among the non-Jews, who do not like Jews, it is very difficult to walk about with the traditional Hassidic garb.”
      The rabbi sat engrossed in thought for a time and finally exclaimed to the Hassid: “Nu, now that you have changed your clothes and you dress like one of them – do the non-Jews like you?” (Menachem HaCohen)   top of Symposium I   top of page

"There Israel Became a Nation — Distinctive"
What's in a Name?
      “They did not change their names.” Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidism, said: ”A person’s name is part of his spiritual essence. When one touches any part of a person’s body, the entire body feels it. Similarly, when one calls out a person’s name, even if he is asleep, he awakens. As the Jews did not change their names in Egypt, when they heard their original names being called, they immediately awakened and were ready to be redeemed.” (Menachem HaCohen)    top of Symposium I   top of page   

Symposium II:
Assimilation and Prejudice

"The Egyptians 'Badmouthed' Our Loyalty"
ERNEST HEMINGWAY deserves credit for having established “fifth column” as a term for secret subversives working within a country. The phrase was first uttered by General Mola, who said, during the Spanish Civil War, that he was commanding five columns in the assault on Madrid, four converging on the city from various directions “and the fifth column within the city.” But Hemingway made the phrase famous in a play called The Fifth Column.   top of Symposium II   top of page

Beware of the Fifth Column
DON ISAAC ABRABANEL (a Spanish and Portuguese statesman and later refugee from the Spanish Expulsion, 15th C.) explained: “The Egyptians thought badly of us. They suspected us of being spies, and conspirators plotting a revolt against their rulers.” Pharaoh himself created and manipulated this public image of the Jews in the eyes of his own people. He outsmarted his own nation   top of Symposium II   top of page

Prejudice and I
Recount a story in which you were involved in unjust discrimination whether as a victim, a witness or a perpetrator. How do these examples compare to Egyptian persecution of strangers?   top of Symposium II   top of page

A Rabbi Combats the Nazi Image of the Jew
OUTSIDE THE SYNAGOGUE in the ghetto, that is, in the newspapers, on the radio, in the speeches of the government people, wherever Jews listened, on the propaganda placards of the Nazi regime, in the cartoons of the anti-Semitic papers, the Jews were depicted as a non-person – ugly, immoral, uncreative, cowardly, useless and inferior. I had to tell the Jews from the pulpit in every single sermon that to be a Jew is to be beautiful, great, noble, and that we have every right to feel superior. (For this reason, Afro-Americans in the 1960’s emphasized that “black is beautiful”).
     It was most important for me to demonstrate to the people that I was not afraid of anything. It is difficult to imagine now how important it was to Jews sitting in the pews to listen to someone expressing himself freely and often brutally against the Nazi regime, in spite of the fact that two Gestapo men were always sitting in the first row. I especially remember preaching a sermon against Der Stuermer, the most violent anti-Semitic paper whose editor Streicher was later hanged after the Nuremburg trials. I took a copy of the paper with me to the pulpit. I opened it to a page on which were printed some of the vicious caricatures of Jews, and I said in my sermon: “Is this what we really look like? Look at yourselves and look at each other. Is this the true picture of Jews?”
(Rabbi Joachim Prinz, Berlin 1933)    top of Symposium II   top of page

Symposium III:
Ancient Egyptian Oppression

Rameses II (1290-1224 B.C.E.)
The Great Builder and the Greater Ego
     Ruling the united kingdom of Egypt for 66 years was Rameses the Great, whose name means “born of (meses) the sun-god (Ra).” Using many Semitic laborers, he completed the temple of Karnak, and constructed the obelisks now located at the Place de la Concorde in Paris and in three squares in Rome.
     The enormous statues of Rameses II which he constructed in Luxor epitomize in stone what the Egyptologists say of his character: “inordinately vain and ostentatious, the greatest of Egyptian boasters.” Among his one hundred children, his thirteenth son, Merneptah (1224-1212 B.C.E.) later inscribed a stone stele, the first extra - Biblical evidence of the existence of the nation of Israel. There he boasts – prematurely it seems – that Israel has been conquered and wiped out forever.
(Moses and Egypt: Documentation of the movie The Ten Commandments, Henry Noerdlinger)    top of Symposium III   top of page

Midrash: Filling In the Gaps
WHILE THE BIBLE is short on concrete details, the Rabbinic midrash imaginatively reconstructs the daily pain and indignity of slavery from the hints in the text.
     1. Why does the Torah use the rare term “be-farech” to describe the Egyptian harsh labor ?
     Rabbi Elazar explained: Don’t read “be-farech” – “with harshness” but “be-fe-rach” – “with soft speech,” with a silvery tongue. Pharoah had already declared that the Egyptians must “outsmart” Israel. So he gathered all the children of Israel and gave them this “pitch:” “Please do me a favor today and give me a hand.” Pharaoh took up a rake and a basket and began to make mud bricks. Everyone who saw him did likewise. Israel worked with him enthusiastically all day. When it grew dark, Pharoah appointed task masters over them to count up their bricks. “That,” he announced, “will be your daily quota!” (Tanhuma Buber, BeHaalotcha)
      2. What does the Torah mean when it says, “Moshe went out to his kinsfolk and saw their burdens” (Ex. 2:11)?
     Moshe saw a big burden on an old person and a small one on a young healthy person, a woman’s task assigned to a man and a man’s task assigned to a woman. He began to cry and say, “Oy! I feel so bad for them. I would give my life for them.” So he would leave his royal retinue and go join his brothers and sisters. While pretending to be executing Pharoah’s orders, he rearranged the burdens, helping each and every slave.
Seeing they had no time to rest, he went to plead their cause before Pharoah: “Any slave owner knows that if his slave doesn’t rest one day a week, then he’ll die.” Pharoah replied: “Go and take care of this problem!” So Moshe enacted for them a weekly day of rest – Shabbat.
     3. Why did God choose Moses?
     Once, while Moses, our Teacher, was tending [his father-in-law] Yitro’s sheep, one of the sheep ran away. Moses ran after it until it reached a small, shaded place. There, the lamb came across a pool and began to drink. As Moses approached the lamb, he said, “I did not know you ran away because you were thirsty. You are so exhausted!” He then put the lamb on his shoulders and carried him back. The Holy One said, “Since you tend the sheep of human beings with such overwhelming love - by your life, I swear you shall be the shepherd of My sheep, Israel.”
(Exodus Rabba 2:2, [1:129)     top of Symposium III   top of page

Symposium IV:
From Resignation to Resistance

"Our Oppression": Slavery and Patience
The waitings which make up the life of a slave:
first he waits for a spokesman
and for plagues
to plead his cause,
then he waits for the waters
to open before him,
then he waits for the desert storms
to name themselves,
then (being a slave) he asks in his heart:
why did I wait for the parting of the waters?
why did I wait for all this uproar and these burnings?
then (being a slave) he waits for answers.
              — Stanley Chyet     top of Symposium IV   top of page

"We Cried Out" — The Power of a Groan
     The sigh, the groan and the crying out of the children of Israel from the slavery was the beginning of redemption. As long as they did not cry out against their exile they were neither worthy nor ready for redemption.
(Menachem HaCohen)     

"Hope is Saying 'No'!"
PRESIDENT HAVEL of the Czech Republic (playwright and former prisoner in communist Czechoslovakia): “Hope is saying ‘no’ to the world immediately experienced. Optimism is the belief that things will be different, will be better.”     top of Symposium IV   top of page

Internal Exile
THE MAGGID OF ZLOTSHOV said: “When the Jews are in exile, the exile enters into them and they refuse to leave the exile and be redeemed. It was for this reason that the Holy One, Blessed be He, had to make Pharaoh a cruel king so that ‘with a strong hand he would expel them from his country’ (Ex. 6:1). This is what we say in the Haggadah: ‘Had the Holy One, Blessed be He, not taken our fathers out of Egypt, we and our children, and our children’s children, would have been enslaved’ – to this very day we would have been living by the fleshpots of Egypt.”
     R. Hanoch-Henich of Alexander added:
     “This was the real meaning of the exile of Israel in Egypt: they learned to tolerate the evil decrees, and became accustomed to Pharaoh.” (Menachem HaCohen)
 top of Symposium IV   top of page

Tears to Hide Our Tears
ONE OF THE TROUBLES in Egypt was that we could not cry and complain for we were surrounded with enemies looking for an excuse to harm us. But when the king of Egypt died and everyone lamented his death in processions all over the city, then we could safely cry over our own troubles. We groaned and wept with the Egyptians. While they thought we were mourning the death of the king, no one could accuse us of wrongdoing. Yet God knew the true reason of our tears.
(Me-am Loez)
    top of Symposium IV   top of page

Symposium V:
Sexuality and Liberation

ZPG — Zero Population Growth
THE MIDRASH COMMENTS that Pharaoh’s decree — throwing the male babies into the Nile — demoralized the Jewish leadership. Amram, future father of Moses, leader of his generation, divorced his wife Yocheved, and declared that all couples should now refrain from marriage because there was no point any more in bearing children. The midrash says that Amram was opposed by his young daughter Miriam. We give here a free adaptation of their midrashic dialogue:
     Miriam: Where are you going with those leaflets?
     Amram: We’re holding the founding meeting of the Jewish ZPG society. All Jews must stop having babies.
     Miriam: But you always said you wanted a big family? Look how much we all love my baby brother Aaron!
     Amram: That was before Pharaoh issued these horrible decrees. He says that all baby boys must be thrown into the Nile. I'm not going to bring a baby into the world to suffer such a horrible fate! Even if he somehow escapes - what kind of life does this world offer him other than endless slavery and indignity?
     Miriam: But you’re worse than Pharaoh!
     Amram: How dare you make such an accusation!
     Miriam: But it’s true! Pharaoh has only decreed against the male children. If your efforts are successful, not even female babies will be born!
     Amram: But what good are females without the males?
     Miriam: That’s what you and that stupid chauvinist Pharaoh think! But in God’s eyes all represent the image of God. Perhaps through the merit of righteous women we will be redeemed. At any rate we have to keep on making Jewish babies no matter how dark the prospects – and leave the rest up to God.
     Amram: You know, that makes sense. I’m going to call off the meeting. Go tell Mommy we’ll be drinking our best wine at dinner tonight.     top of Symposium V   top of page

Sexuality and Liberation/Women's Resistance
THE EGYPTIANS’ expressed purpose in enslaving Israel was to drastically cut their birth rate. The hard labor in the fields exhausted the slaves physically and spiritually. According to a Rabbinic midrash, it was the women who resisted the intent of the decree. They used their sexuality to arouse their husbands, and so re-ignite the fundamental will to life:
     “When Israel performed hard labor in Egypt, Pharaoh decreed that the men must not sleep in their homes, so that they would not engage in sexual relations. R. Shimon bar Halafta said: What did the daughters of Israel do? They went down to draw water from the Nile and God would bring little fish into their jars. They cooked some of the fish and sold the rest, buying wine with the proceeds. Then they went out to the fields and fed their husbands. After eating and drinking, the women would take out bronze mirrors and look at them with their husbands. The wife would say “I’m prettier than you,” and the husband would reply, “I’m more beautiful than you.” Thus they would arouse themselves to desire and they would then “be fruitful and multiply.”
     Years later, when God told Moses to build a tabernacle in the desert, all Israel came to volunteer beautiful things. Some brought gold and silver. The women said, “What do we have, to donate to the tabernacle?” They took their bronze mirrors and brought them to Moses.
     At first, Moses became angry and refused to accept the mirrors since their function is to arouse jealousy and sexual desire. God said to Moses: “Moses, do you dare scorn these mirrors? They are more precious to Me than all the other donations, because through these mirrors the women gave birth in Egypt to all these multitudes. Take them and make them into the bronze basin, with which the priests will purify themselves.” 
(Tanhuma Pikudei 9)     top of Symposium V   top of page

The Bedrooms of Israel
PHARAOH HAD ENTERED the bedrooms of Israel. The birthing beds of Hebrews were matters of state. The Hebrew womb had fallen under the heel of Pharaoh.
(Moses, Man of the Mountain, by Zora Neale Hurston, an Afro-American novelist, 1920’s)     top of Symposium V   top of page

Discuss: are women still oppressed in contemporary society? What should liberation mean today?

Symposium VI:
Suffering and Its Lessons

see also
Should We Feel Joy at the Downfall of Our Enemies?
When we dwell on being victims, then those memories
may either corrupt us or help us grow in empathy for others. Consider the negative effects of suffering: self-pity, dreams of vengeance, self-righteousness and self-blame. Often one loses the ability to feel for others since “I suffered much worse.”
     Yet the Torah seeks to extract positive lessons from our persecution in Egypt: activism, hope, solidarity among victims and empathy for the other, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Compare and contrast Pharaoh’s and God’s advice to their children below:
 top of Symposium VI   top of page

Pharaoh's Advice
Hearken to that which I say to you . . .
Harden yourself against all subordinates.
The people give heed to him who terrorizes them.
Approach them not alone.
Fill not your heart with a brother,
Know not a friend,
Nor make for yourself intimates,
Wherein there is no end.
When you sleep,
Guard for yourself your own heart,
For a man has no people.
In the day of evil,
I gave to the beggar.
I nourished the orphan.
I admitted the insignificant,
As well as him who was of great account.
But he who ate my food made insurrection.
He to whom I gave my land, aroused fear therein.
(Pharaoh Amenemhet, 1780 B.C.E)        top of Symposium VI   top of page

God's Advice
When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him.
The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens.
You shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
I, the Lord, am your God who freed you from the land of Egypt (Leviticus 19:33-36).
You shall not subvert the rights of your needy in their disputes (Ex. 23:6).
You shall have one law for all of you.
The same for both stranger and citizen for I, the Lord, am your God (Lev. 24:22).
When you reap the produce of your land, you must not harvest the corners of your field nor gather the fallen sheaves. Leave them for the poor and the stranger. I, the Lord, am your God (Lev. 23:22).
You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger,
having yourselves been strangers (Ex. 22:9).        top of Symposium VI   top of page

Giving a Helping Hand
Just as God showed compassion to the Jews when they were strangers in Egypt, so all of us are commanded to imitate God’s active concern for the poor, the persecuted and the outsider.
     Ask the participants to describe examples of how people have helped refugees, the mistreated and the “other” in society.

"Even Harsher"
Ask someone to name a very harsh task and explain why it is so difficult especially for him. Ask the next one to name an even harsher, more embittering, more humiliating task and explain the choice.. If you were a slave, what would you hate most?
 top of Symposium VI   top of page