French Jews, in Biblical perspective

January 27, 2015

Torah Thought

“Now, when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not guide them by the road towards the Philistines, although that was the shortest; for He said, ‘The people may change their minds when they see war before them, and turn back to Egypt.’ So God made them go round by way of the wilderness…” Exodus 13:17-18

This week, we read the saga of the Exodus of our ancestors from Egypt and the beginning of their trek to Israel, the Promised Land.

Also this week, we are reading news reports of the exodus of French Jewry from France. In 2014, 7,000 of our brethren made aliyah. As of now, 10,000 are expected to leave this year, but I would not be surprised if the number grows still higher, because fear has become the dominant reality there. Paris synagogues were half empty on the Shabbat of Jan. 11, right after the attack on the kosher supermarket.

For the first time since World War II , the Great Synagogue of Paris was closed throughout Shabbat. Many kosher delis and restaurants in the city’s Jewish quarter remained closed for days, and those that opened had only a fraction of their normal volume.

The Israelites left Egypt in triumph, “with a high hand,” as the Bible expresses it. But underneath the relief and bravado was a pervasive sense of fear. The national trauma of slavery was formative, not to be erased even by Ten Plagues, divine signs and wonders. God knew that, and hence kept the newborn nation out of harm’s way—until Pharaoh changed his mind and went charging after the former slaves. That triggered renewed fear and despair—“were there not enough graves in Egypt, that you took us out here, to die in the desert!?”— until the crowning miracle, the crossing of the Reed Sea, gave the Israelites faith in God and in God’s servant, Moses.

The Jews of France are not overreacting. Their fear is well founded. But there is one crucial difference between their experience and that of our ancestors. For the Jews of today, Israel is already a Jewish state. The latter-day “Philistines” are a thorn in the side of Israel, but Jewish sovereignty is a reality.

Our task is two-fold. In terms of Jewish life in the Diaspora, we must fight the steady erosion of Jewish security. A crisis is upon us. This is not the time to retreat to the “business as usual” mindset that the luxury of American life sometimes affords us. In terms of Israel, we need to recognize that its needs are critical, too. A double myriad of French olim will help sustain the Jewish character of Israel demographically and socio-economically. Will American Jewry, the largest reservoir of Jewish strength outside of Israel, do its part? Pharaoh’s latest commandos, the newest iteration of those who seek to bathe in Jewish blood, make the question inescapable and urgent. Adonay ’oz l’amo yitten;

Adonai y’varekh et amo va-shalom

May the LORD grant strength to His people; May the LORD bless His people with peace.

—Rabbi Michael Panitz, Temple Israel

Letter to the Editor