Parashat Shemot begins, "And these are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt". The Midrash points out that not adopting Egyptian names was one of the three merits for which the Jewish people were redeemed. They went out of Egypt with the same names they entered with. The Lubavitcher Rebbe writes that this verse reveals the secret of Jewish survival in all of the difficult and dangerous exiles. The first defense is that our children will know and remember who they are…

When a Jew finds him or herself in a modern-day Egypt - a place where daily life goes against our traditions - the first defense is that his children will know and remember who they are, and who their parents are. They must be imbued with the consciousness that they are the children of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sara, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. (This is hinted in the Hebrew word, Yisrael - Israel, whose five letters contain the first letters of the names of all the forebears). When our children really know this, they will carry their Jewish names with pride. It is these children that, as adults, will continue to protect their own Jewish identity and that of their children. And when the redemption arrives, these will be among those exiting today's Egypt, with their names and Judaism intact.

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn quotes the Midrash that the 2nd merit of the Jews in Egypt was not changing their language. Language has a unique ability to prevent assimilation. A special language allows a nation to stand apart and see themselves as outside the larger society. But this merit did not derive from just any casual effort. It only accomplished its goal when it literally limited the Jews' behavior, creating obstacles in their connections with non-Jews and discouraging them from going to places where they would stand out. When we begin to justify even little conformities to gentile society, our defenses weaken. Strength is in a behavior which is not questioned. This is the way we do things. Just before the final redemption, there will be enormous pressure…to conform to foreign dress codes

The third special merit was not changing the Jewish custom of dress. Rabbi Hillel of Paritch was a tzadik and great scholar who chose to become a devoted chassid of the first three Chabad Rebbes. It is known that he would not change his custom of dress, even under threat of death. Explaining his steadfastness, Rabbi Hillel said he possessed a document of Rebbe Pinchas of Koretz on which was written that just as clothing covers and surrounds us, so too it is spiritually connected to the divine attribute of Understanding [bina], that "covers" and is the basis of our emotions which lead to action. The Arizal said that even though the Jews in Egypt had entered the 49 gates of impurity, they had not yet fallen into the 50th. For this reason we were redeemed from Egypt. The 50th gateway of impurity is parallel to its converse, the pure 50th gate of Understanding. By not changing their dress - which is connected to understanding - the Jews had the power to stay out of that 50th gate of impurity! Rebbe Pinchas' document also explained that just before the final redemption, there will be enormous pressure on the Jews to conform to foreign dress codes - to push them into the 50th gate of impurity - and they will succumb, G‑d forbid! So on what merit will we be redeemed? On the merit of a few individuals who, against all odds, will not relinquish their customary dress. Rabbi Hillel closed by saying that anyone who had such a document would undoubtedly sacrifice all to fulfill its requirements; the only problem is that no one has it. I do, therefore I must comply! …many Jews had capitulated to exile so much so that they did not want to leave…

Rebbe Yechiel Michal of Zlotchov asked why G‑d said "With a strong hand they [the Jews] will be forced out [of Egypt]" (Ex. 6:1). Does a slave need to be forced out? He escapes with every means at his disposal. The answer: because many Jews had capitulated to exile so much so that they did not want to leave, G‑d promised to shine a powerful, holy light on them. This holiness would exude from the Jews with such intensity that it would repel Pharaoh and his minions. Facing such holiness, the evil of the exile would have to relinquish and forcefully expel the Jews. That is why the verse begins with the words "See what I will do to Pharaoh". G‑d, in His goodness, focused on Egypt's weakness and not on the Jews.

Shabbat Shalom, Shaul

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