By HaRav Mordechai Greenberg
Rosh HaYeshiva, Kerem B'Yavneh
There are two ways that the nations of the world fight against Israel. One way is through physical might, by attempting to destroy and annihilate them. The second is through religious and cultural conflict. The Rambam discusses this in his "Iggeret Teiman," and declares that the nations' attempts will not succeed! He interprets in this vein the pasuk in Yeshaya (54:17), "Any weapon sharpened against you will not succeed, and any tongue that will rise against you in judgment, you will condemn," which mentions both the war of the weapon and the word of the tongue. The war of the sword may cause many casualties, but, at least, its intentions are clear and overt. However, the second type of war is fought with a hidden agenda, and since its insidious impact is not immediately noticeable, it can have a more devastating effect, much like the venom of a snake.
The exile began when Yosef was thrown into a pit that had no water in it, "but had snakes and scorpions in it." (Shabbat 22a) A snake bites with intention to damage, as opposed to a scorpion which stings with its tail, without intention. On the other hand, a snakebite is limited because the snake has less venom after it bites, and cannot immediately continue its attack, whereas a scorpion can continuously sting. These reflect the two dangers of exile. The scorpion's sting is much more dangerous, because it operates in an indirect and protracted manner and is harder to take precautions against. This corresponds to the poisonous cultural influences that affect us throughout our stay in galut.
Still, the worst affliction of exile is the "sinat chinam" (baseless hatred) among us, which is the cause for the continuation of our exile. This is what Moshe noted when he saw that there were informers among the Jews: "Indeed, the matter is known!" (Shemot 2:14) I now know the matter that I had wondered about. In what way did Yisrael sin more than other nations to be afflicted with such hard work? Now I see that they deserve it! (Rashi ibid., quoting Midrash)
There are some that believe that in order to lessen the sting of external hatred of Yisrael, we should not express our differences, but should highlight our similarities with the nations. Already in Egypt Bnei Yisrael tried to remove the fence between themselves and the Egyptians by neglecting the mitzvah of Brit Mila, but the outcome was the opposite of their intention, as it says, "He turned their hearts to hate His nation." (Tehillim 105:25) The Netziv comments on the pasuk, "Behold, it is a nation that will dwell in solitude and not be reckoned among the nations" (Bamidbar 23:9), that the ideal situation for Am Yisrael is "to dwell in solitude," and through this separation, security will come. However, if Yisrael attempts to mingle with the nations, they will "not be reckoned among the nations" -- Hashem will cause them to be hated. The Gemara says in Sanhedrin (104a): G-d said, 'Thus Israel shall dwell secure, solitary,'" that their solitude will lead to security. But now -- when Yisrael tries to mingle with the nations - "Alas -- she sits in solitude" (Eicha 1:1), against their will they will sit solitary in exile. Therefore, Yaakov and Yosef wanted to settle their family in the land of Goshen, apart from their neighbors, in order to remain free from outside influence.
In order to overcome the afflictions of galut, we must protect our distinct national character and counteract sinat chinam. Yisrael is compared in Tanach to fire, and the nations to water, as the pasuk in Shir Hashirim (8:7) says, "Much water can not extinguish the love [of G-d and Israel]." Water impacts on the fire and extinguishes it, but only when they come into direct contact. If there is a separation between them, however, such as a pot of water on the fire, the opposite occurs -- the fire impacts the water and warms it. Only direct contact between Israel and the nations causes us harm. To counteract the affliction of sinat chinam, we should increase ahavat chinam. The Netziv comments on the phrase, "he shepherded the stone of Israel" (49:4), that Yisrael in exile is compared to dust, and the nations are compared to water which washes away the dust. However, when the individual pieces of dust consolidate to become stone, the water has no affect on it.
"In the merit of four things Bnei Yisrael were redeemed from Egypt: they didn't change their names; they didn't change their language; they didn't speak "lashon hara"; and they did not commit acts of immorality." (Vayikra Rabbah 32:5) In these ways they were careful about loving their fellow Jews, by not speaking lashon hara, and they kept their national character, by not changing their names and language, so as to maintain their distance from the Egyptians.
The Nation of Israel is called, "Beit Yaakov," the House of Yaakov. There are two functions of a house-- to unite the family within it, and to protect the family from outside dangers. When Bnei Yisrael went down to Egypt, "Each man and his household came." (Shemot 1:1) The preparation for exile requires "building houses" -- that is, keeping out the influences of foreign nations, and uniting the family within. Ultimately, in the future, everyone will recognize the value of the house and will say, "Come, let us go up to the Mountain of Hashem, to the House of the G-d of Yaakov, and He will teach us of His ways and we will walk in His paths." (Yeshaya 2:3)