The story of Exodus instills the idea that Jews should not hide their identity in public.
By Rabbi Schneor Greenberg
Passover may be a long way off, but the story of the Exodus is the topic of this week’s Torah portion.
The name Passover only reminds us about one small detail of the Exodus from Egypt, that before the last plague, God passed over the houses where there was blood on the doorposts. This seems just a technical detail, so why was the holiday named after this event?
The answer can be found in the following story from the 1960s. There was a young man who studied in Manhattan, where all the students in his yeshivah were clean shaven; but he wanted to grow a beard. His parents and teachers were against this because they felt that he would be seen as a hippie.
He decided to ask the Lubavitcher Rebbe what to do. The Rebbe said to him, “Surely you are familiar with the statement in the Midrash that the Jews were redeemed from Egypt on the merit of the fact that they didn’t change their names, their language or their dress. On the other hand, there is another statement that the Jews were idol worshippers and didn’t deserve to be redeemed. How can we reconcile these two opposite comments?”
The Rebbe then went on to say, “Let us take, for example, the hippies: Abbie Hoffman and, before them, the beatniks Allen Ginsberg and others with Jewish names. They didn’t change their names; they didn’t dress like regular people. Even in their language, they used a jargon which they developed.”
The Rebbe continued, “In the ’30s, if someone was a socialist, then everyone said he was a Jew; in the ’40s, if someone was a communist, everyone said he was surely a Jew; in the ’60s, if you said hippies, immediately people would say the Jews brought this ‘problem.’ Therefore, even hippies are worthy of being redeemed with the congregation of Israel because they separate themselves from the rest of the population.”
Jewish identity is not about a person walking around with his tzitzit hanging out or a black hat on his head. The Jews in Egypt worshipped idols, but they dressed differently from the Egyptians. Their clothes were such that everyone knew they were Jews. This is one of the reasons why God insisted the Jewish people paint the doorposts with blood. At that moment in time, it was a statement of Jewish identity.
Today, we should not be embarrassed or afraid to, figuratively, paint the blood onto our doorposts, to show our Jewish identity in public.
The fact that the Jews in Egypt were never embarrassed about their Jewish identity was very dear to God, and that’s what merited their redemption. It was not about a religious identity, but about a Jewish identity; and, therefore, the holiday is called Passover.
Rabbi Schneor Greenberg is rabbi of the Chabad Jewish Center of Commerce, firstname.lastname@example.org.