In this week's torah portion, Shemot, we read that "A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph". In this single sentence, we see the beginnings of a tragedy that will repeat itself throughout millennia. Seemingly in every generation there is an "Amalek" who preys upon the generations that fail to remember what happened to us in Egypt.
In the last week's torah portion Vayechi, we read that Joseph said to his brothers, "I am dying. And God will surely remember you again one day and bring you up from this land to the land which God swore to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob."
This is an odd statement to make to a population that the Torah tells us was every bit as influential, wealthy and respected as our own community is today in North America. One wonders what spiritual pull this promise could hold for a population that had only known the privileges of position in society? How relevant could the promise of some ethereal land in a distant location hold for a community that had assimilated so successfully into Egyptian life that Joseph was second in power only to Pharaoh himself? With all the distractions of "modern" Egyptian life and the wealth of opportunities available to them, what could our forefathers and foremothers see in this promise that they didn't already have? In other words, what could God possibly offer to improve upon an already (perceived) high quality of life?
Between Vayechi and Shemot, we arrive at a generation of our forefathers, that like Pharaoh, had also forgotten Joseph. They forgot where they came from and who they were and, as such, became so ensconced in their material wealth and cultural distractions that, in going into slavery, all that they lost was their power, position and wealth. The most precious possession, their sense of self, had already been lost long before.
It is this question, that we Hillel professionals on campus are faced with every day as we seek to inspire every Jewish student to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life. How can the memories (the Torah) of our people and the promise of a spiritual homeland far away hold relevance to a generation that is equally self-absorbed and similarly challenged with a disconnect from their spiritual memory?
In the second paragraph of Shemot, it is written "Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground." Throughout Shemot, we read how Pharaoh cruelly tried (unsuccessfully) to eradicate the Jews, eventually calling for the death of all male children so that through attrition and time we would erase ourselves. This story, retold each year at Pesach, is filled with modern allusions to events like the Holocaust to remind us why we should be Jewish. "Thou shalt not hand Hitler posthumous victories. To despair of the God of Israel is to continue Hitler’s work for him," claimed Emil Fackenheim a German philosopher and rabbi. In other words, the scourge of assimilation is a self-inflicted, unintended homage to both Pharoah's and Hitler's dream and, as such, reason enough for us to go out into the world and raise Jewish children.
To the pre-millennial generation of the post-Holocaust era, this argument has been at the forefront of Jewish communal efforts to engage in outreach to "the next generation." However, on the campus these arguments hold little meaning for a generation that does not know Joseph any more than Pharaoh did. With the generation of Holocaust survivors quickly fading into memory, today's college students feel neither the insecurity, nor the fears of previous generations and with that, no sense of requirement to follow Fackenheim's famous "11th Commandment."
In Michael Goldberg's "Why Should the Jews Survive?" he describes a world in which Jews increasingly find little reason to remain Jews and to commit themselves to Jewish ritual life and practice. "Within the context of the Holocaust-framed story there are no positive reasons Jews can give for remaining Jewish. Thus, the challenge to Jews today is not outliving Hitler and the Nazis but overcoming the life-threatening story created in their aftermath!" says Goldberg.
With this statement, we see the second challenge facing Hillel professionals today and that is "how to avoid using "the fear factor" of Shemot, the Holocaust and even the nuclear threat from Iran to as a kind of "scared straight" to encourage our students to embrace Judaism, but rather to focus our efforts on the promise Joseph bequeathed to his descendents that God would remember them and in doing so, offer something that is even more meaningful, more satisfying and more alluring beyond (not instead of) the things they currently perceive as such. The land that God was referring to (we read later on) was to be filled with "milk and honey," a land filled with sustenance and abundance. In other words, God did not intend for us to forsake the myriad enjoyments this world has to offer, but rather to provide us with a national conscious, as a framework through which to enjoy these blessings and relate to the world around us, so that through our actions we would be "a light unto the nations."
As Hillel professionals, we must work to reinterpret the words of George Santayana who wrote, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." For us Jews, the past is a collection of traditions we have accumulated as a people, not merely for the sake of remembrance, nor out of obligation or fear, but rather because that past enriched the lives of several millennia of Jews. It stands to reason that such a tradition that has lasted thousands of years, must also offer us something as well; so that we can truly say, "those who can remember the past are able to repeat it."
Written by Aaron Weil, executive director, The Edward and Rose Berman Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh.