January 16, 2020

Over the next two weeks, we will be marking three significant events on our calendar. This coming Monday, January 20, we observe the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. On Thursday, January 23, Yad Vashem will be hosting the Fifth World Holocaust Forum 2020, entitled “Remembering the Holocaust: Fighting Anti-Semitism,” and on Monday, January 27th, the world will mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

This Shabbat our Torah reading begins the second book of the Torah, Exodous, Shemot. How appropriate that the weekly Torah reading would coincide with these three important dates.

Rav David Silverberg, Yeshiva Har Etzion, notes that in Parashat Shemot (1:13), the Torah tells us that the Egyptians enslaved Bnai Yisrael, forcing labor upon them “be-farekh.”  Most commentators interpreted this word in accordance with the usage of the root p.r.kh. in Talmudic literature as meaning “break.” Rashi, for example, writes that the Egyptians forced upon Bnai Yisrael “labor which breaks the body.” Onkelos translates this word as “be-kashyu,” which likely means “harshly,” or “severely.”

An entirely different interpretation of the word “be-farekh” is offered by Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, who associates this word with the word “parokhet,” referring to the partition that separated between the two chambers of the Mishkan.  According to Rav Hirsch, the word “be-farekh” indicates that by enslaving Bnai Yisrael, the Egyptians effectively drove a wedge between Bnai Yisrael and the rest of the country, singling out the former as a fundamentally different – and inferior – class. Rav Hirsch writes:

“By declaring them slaves, they [the Egyptians] divided them off from the rest of the people, as being creatures without any rights whatsoever, they shut them right off from all the rest of the population who could claim legal rights.  Slaves are declared to be a different order of beings to ordinary human beings. “

Thus, the word “be-farekh” indicates that the Egyptians created a “partition” between themselves and Bnai Yisrael, designating them as a slave class that deserved no rights and could be tormented and abused freely.

The significance of this reading of “be-farekh” extends beyond the context of Egypt’s enslavement of Bnai Yisrael.  Many people erect various “partitions” between themselves and certain groups. They view those different from them as not merely different, but as separate and apart, and as inferior beings.  These “partitions” might relate to financial status, social skills, professional skills, appearance, ethnic or geographic origin, level of religious observance, or any other distinguishing feature. Our legitimate pride over our background, achievements and way of doing things can easily lead us to regard as inferior those from different backgrounds, who have not achieved what we have achieved, or who conduct their lives differently than we do.  The retribution visited upon Egypt for its mistreatment of Bnai Yisrael teaches us of the evil of “be-farekh,” of erecting artificial “partitions” that set apart certain groups of people as inferior.  We are certainly entitled to take pride in our unique identity and accomplishments, but at the same time, we must avoid building mental “partitions” between us and others, and looking with disdain upon those who are different from us.

Dr. King who championed the end of racial segregation in this country was deeply influenced by the Jewish experience, particularly the message in the Torah and our experiences during the Shoah.

Viewing the experiences of the Shoah through a uniquely Jewish lens, Yad Vashem continues to be a light unto the nations in reminding us of the consequences of what hatred can do to society and how essential it is to respect and value others.

Shabbat Shalom,

Stanley