We should want to be moser nefesh and open about our identity
“Go up to the top of the hill and lift up your eyes westward and northward and southward and eastward and see with your eyes, for you shall not cross this Yarden.” (Devarim 3:27)
The Midrash quotes Moshe saying to Hashem, “The bones of Yosef will enter Eretz Yisrael, but I can’t?”
Hashem answered, “He who acknowledges his homeland will be buried in his homeland, and he who doesn’t acknowledge his homeland will not be buried there.”
Yosef acknowledged his homeland while in Mitzrayim, when he said, “For I was stolen from the land of the Ivrim” (Bereishis 40:15).
In contrast, when the daughters of Yisro told him (Shemos 2:19), “An Egyptian man rescued us from the hand of the shepherds,” Moshe didn’t correct them and say that he was Jewish. (Rav Shimon Schwab, Maayan Bais Hashoeivah)
There’s something about transcontinental travel that makes you feel that you’re not just flying the friendly skies, but are simply flying. It’s a time period of transience, as if I’m a free-floating entity, untethered to location, community, or even continent. Anonymous and incognito. It’s liberating, yet frightening.
The allegation against Moshe seems confusing. Moshe miraculously fled Mitzrayim, where no slave ever managed to escape, by disguising himself as an Egyptian. If he’d admit he was Jewish, he’d be putting himself in terrible danger, especially since Yisro was an advisor to Pharaoh!
The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Dei’ah 157:2) discusses this type of scenario. It’s forbidden for a person to say he’s an idol worshipper to spare his life, but he’s allowed to appear as a non-Jew if his life is in danger. So what did Moshe do wrong?
This past summer I flew to the States with a stopover in Rome. I’m not an adventurous traveler, not interested in sightseeing or grabbing some shopping while in transit. In fact, being a history buff and having an overactive imagination, I often dread making connections in cities that represent to me Jewish persecution and exile.
Landing in Rome prompted unwelcome thoughts of Titus, of shackled slaves, and of being within a stone’s throw of the Vatican. But the airport was innocuous enough and since I had a very long layover, I checked into the lounge hoping to get some sleep.
The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah) discusses two students of Rabi Yehoshua who disguised themselves as non-Jews at a time of persecution.
An officer met them and said, “If you’re bnei Torah, then you should be giving up your life for it. And if not, then why should you die for it?”
We see from here that if a person’s a ben Torah, even if it causes him a certain amount of danger, he should want to be moser nefesh and be open about his identity.
The lounge was packed with travelers from all around the globe, and I wandered until I found an unoccupied chair.
Sinking into the cushions, I didn’t even have a chance to close my eyes before the woman sitting next to me struck up a conversation.
“Hi. Waiting for a flight? You look tired.”
Thanks so much, Ms. Bright-and-Bouncy. I wanted to glare at her, but she looked so genuinely concerned. You know the type — that uber-friendly sort — who comes away with lifelong friendships from every trip?
Sure enough, she segued right into the let’s-get-to-know-each-other conversation, showing me her new neck cushion, pictures of her dog, and her complete travel itinerary for the next few weeks. I tried to manage decent responses, while longing for a sinkhole that would allow me some solitary respite.
“So, where are you from?” She paused long enough to allow me a turn.
Ah. Where am I from? Her first question and I’m already stumped? What to answer? Was this cheery, chipper chatterer anti-Israel or pro? Would admitting my homeland be opening myself up to political debate or attack? Was I in actual danger from possible rabid anti-Semitism? Probably not, but then again, thank you imagination, this was Rome — departure point of our current exile.
Scrabbling for a solution, I took the coward’s way out. “I’m from Maryland,” I said brightly. “Ever been there?”
And she was off, telling me about her fishing expedition on the Chesapeake Bay. But I couldn’t stifle a sigh of disappointment and perhaps even shame in myself. Why had I lacked the backbone to stand up for my heritage? I wished I could press rewind and take a line from Benny Friedman’s song — to be proud and say out loud, “I’m a Jew. How about you?”
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 655)