This week's portion tells a story often repeated throughout history: The Jews become prominent and numerous. There arises a new king in Egypt "who did not know Joseph" (meaning he chose not to know Joseph or recognize any debt of gratitude).
He proclaims slavery for the Jewish people "lest they may increase so much, that if there is war, they will join our enemies and fight against us, driving (us) from the land."
Moshe (Moses) is born and immediately hidden because of the decree to kill all male Jewish babies. Moses is saved by Pharaoh's daughter, grows up in the royal household, goes out to see the plight of his fellow Jews.
Toward the beginning of Parashat Shemot (1:7), the Torah describes Beneh Yisrael’s rapid population growth in Egypt. It concludes by saying, “Va’timaleh Ha’aretz Otam” – “The land became filled with them.” The situation became such that wherever the Egyptians went, they encountered people from Beneh Yisrael. The Midrash, commenting on this verse, says that Beneh Yisrael filled the theaters in Egypt. Egyptians would arrive at the show and find Jews sitting in their seats.
This situation marked a drastic change from the previous state of affairs. When Yaakob and his family first settled in Egypt, they lived separate from the native Egyptians. The Jewish area of settlement was confined to the region of Goshen, where Yaakob set up a Yeshiva and he and his offspring generally lived apart from Egyptian society. This situation began to change when the last of Yaakob’s sons died. With the demise of the last great spiritual figurehead, Beneh Yisrael gradually left the secure confines of Goshen and assimilated. They got involved on all levels in Egyptian society.
And this is when the trouble began. The Egyptians took notice of the Jews’ sudden “invasion” of their society, and grew suspicious. These suspicions paved the way for the dreadful period of slavery and persecution that Beneh Yisrael endured in Egypt.
We cannot overlook the similarity between this process and the process that occurred more recently in Germany. The Jews of Germany decided to leave their enclaves and adopt a German lifestyle. They thought that by breaking down the barriers, by being more like the Germans, by abandoning traditions and practices that made them different, they would earn the gentiles’ favor and goodwill. In short, they figured that assimilation is the answer to anti-Semitism. But they were tragically mistaken. It was specifically as a result of the Jews’ becoming more like the Germans that the Germans felt threatened and suspicious. Like in Egypt, the Jews’ presence in the “theaters” bred resentment and laid the groundwork for deadly persecution.
Megilat Ester begins by telling of the lavish party that King Ahashverosh hosted in his palace for the people of Shushan, and tradition teaches us that the Jews of Shushan attended and fully participated in the celebration. One Rabbi suggested that this event may have likely ignited, or at least exacerbated, Haman’s feelings of hatred toward the Jews. He began wondering why these foreign people are taking up space in the palace, why they are feeling so at home in Persia.
It is a mistake to think that we will earn the trust and favor of other nations by being like them and embracing their values and lifestyle. History has proven that assimilation makes matters worse, not better, as it causes mistrust and resentment, rather than respect. The safest way to live in exile is to remain in “Goshen,” to remain fully committed to our ancient traditions and stay away from the “theaters” of the non-Jews. We will then succeed in preserving our traditions and avoiding the hostility and resentment of the people around us.