Parshat Shemot: From Family Tribe to The Jewish People
When I was a child the national United Jewish Appeal had a motto: “We are One.” Somehow, between the end of last week’s portion where 70 members of Jacob’s family make their way to Egypt and reunite with Joseph, we fast-forward a few hundred years and Pharoah warns: “The Israelite people are much too numerous for us; let us deal shrewdly with them so that they may not increase.”
Pharoah calls us, “Bnai Yisrael, the children of Israel.” One of the distinguishing features of the Jewish religion is that we are not just a religion or ethnic group, we are “a people.” The Ethics of the Fathers teaches us, “Do not separate yourself from the community.” We care about fellow Jews wherever we live and wherever they live. In recent years we have saved the Jews of the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia. When the State of Israel was created, we gathered in Jews from all the Arab countries and airlifted the Jews of Yemen to safety in Israel.
To me, to be a Jew means to be concerned about members of our Jewish people, not only in our school, community or synagogue, but wherever Jews live. The Talmud teaches that “all Jews are responsible for one another.”
As we read about God’s redemption of the Israelites in Egypt, we see in The Book of Exodus a transformation from a group of tribes made up of Jacob’s children to “the children of Israel.” And today we speak of “the Jewish people” and ‘Jewish peoplehood.”
One of the most important values we can teach our children is that “all Jews are responsible for one another.” At a time of increased anti-semitism and attacks on Israel’s right to exist, the idea of Jewish peoplehood is even more important. The UJA concept I was taught as a child – We Are One! – is a central pillar of Jewish identity and belonging.