A persistent theme that appears in this week’s Torah reading regarding the first seven of the ten plagues that afflict Egypt is differentiation. Only the Egyptians suffer, and the Israelites do not. From a simplistic approach to the texts describing this separation between the two protagonists, one concludes that G-d is sparing His people from the onslaught of the plagues, while the oppressors, namely the Egyptians, suffer the full brunt of the impact of these supernatural events.
On further inspection, the underlying concept of separation is not just a Divine determination, but it finds its roots already in the early encounters between Joseph’s brothers and the Egyptians who cannot break bread together. The former is considered to be abominable in the eyes of the latter. In other words, the term with which we are familiar, Havdalah, literally translated as separation, manifests itself early on in the lives of our people, and continues until this very day.
Abraham is the first Hebrew, the translation of Hebrew referring to the fact that the world is figuratively on one side of the river, and he is on the other. He describes himself to the Hittite population as a resident alien as he attempts to buy the field of Machpelah to serve as a burial place for his wife, Sarah, and future generations.
Isaac is an outcast even in his own country, as his conflict with the Philistines over water sources isolates him from others, albeit with G-dâ€™s blessings. Jacob lives alone with his family far from the madding crowd, especially following his sonsâ€™ massacre of the inhabitants of Shechem, known today as Nablus.
Sometimes, Havdalah is foisted on us by anti-Semitic forces. At other times, we have to draw our imaginary mechitzot, or barriers, to ensure we retain our identity as the children of Israel. Sometimes, we have to be the light unto the nations to distinguish ourselves from the darkness that pervades the outside world with its warped sense of values. We have to separate ourselves by ensuring that assimilation does not overcome us with its various enticements.
The people of Israel have to rely on G-d’s wonders to save them from the same fate facing the Egyptians. Vehfilati, vesamti fedut, I will separate the Israelites from the Egyptians, as if to say they have no choice. Today, we have a choice. We can assimilate or we can remain strongly committed to our faith. The Torah tells us, Uvacharta Bachayim, choose life, choose the way of life given to us at Sinai.