The Bible is the greatest shaper of Jewish identity. The first movement towards the creation of a unique identity occurs in the Book of Genesis. In the beginning, there is the universal: the creation of the world and humanity as a whole, without division into identities. However, very quickly, starting with Chapter 12, the Book of Genesis turns to the particular, with the commandment to Abram, “Go forth from your country, from your kindred and from your father’s house.” Break away from your family and become an independent identity.
In the Book of Genesis, the boundaries of what will eventually become Jewish identity are clarified. Isaac and Jacob are in; Ishmael and Esau are out. Although all are members of the same family, they have different identities and different destinies. At the end of Genesis, the boundaries are closed: all of Jacob's descendants, the tribes and their genealogy, are part of one identity group, independent of their deeds. However, they are still just a family - seventy people.
In the Book of Exodus, the family’s unique identity is translated into the unique identity of a nation. This is the essence of Exodus—the formation of a nation. Of course, this is not merely a description of the past, but instructions for the present and future. This is the meaning of “The Deed of the Fathers is a Sign for the Sons” or in the words of philosopher Friedrich Schelling, “the mythology of the nation is its destiny.” And so, the reading of the weekly portion of the Torah - which in recent years has engaged not only the religiously observant, but also the secular Israeli - is likely to serve as a sign post for our present conduct and our planning of the Jewish future. The upcoming weekly columns, over the course of the Book of Exodus, will deal with this topic.
The family established the land of Canaan as the home port of its identity, deep and secure. However, at the end of the Book of Genesis, the family “descends” to Egypt, the place which represents a clear alternative to Jewish identity. Indeed, the central question is: Why does most of the biblical drama, beginning with this week's portion and continuing until the end of the Bible occur outside the land of Israel—in Egypt or in the desolation of the desert? Why do only very few of the Torah portions take place in the land of Canaan (and even in those few, there are recurring descents out of the country)? We will return to this question in later columns.
In any case, the first event in the family’s transition to nationhood is demographic growth. It is hard to conceive of a more detailed and impressive description of demographic growth than the opening verses of the Book of Exodus: “And the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them.” If this had been the normal growth pace, Pharaoh would not have been concerned that “the Israelite people have become much too numerous and strong for us.” Indeed, a simple reading of the text teaches that the Israelites in Egypt were not enslaved for economic exploitation, as is commonly thought, but to prevent the growth of the group/population
What is customarily called the “natural rate of increase” was all but natural. In contradiction of plain logic and the pharaonic plan, slavery failed as a means of birth control. On the contrary. “The more they were oppressed, the more they increased and spread out.” The Midrashic description articulates this in characteristic manner: “The women would give birth to six at a time!” A simple calculation illustrates that ordinarily, in such a brief period, a group of seventy people could not multiply “naturally” so quickly as to constitute a demographic threat to an established, developed nation, the leader of the world at that time.
The first to herald our becoming a nation is none other than Pharaoh. He brands us, “the Israelite people” and calls the women “Hebrew women”. When a sociological phenomenon is given a name, it becomes a fact. Anti-Semitism arrives in the world together with recognition of the nation’s existence. Ancient Egypt was similar to both medieval and twentieth-century Europe: hatred of the other, for no reason (or more precisely — an imaginary reason), brings the leaders, then and now, to the extreme solution of enslavement and poverty, which is then replaced with an even more extreme solution: annihilation of the Jews. Pharaoh commands “all his people”: “Every boy that is born you shall throw into the Nile.” A few verses after the nation’s creation, all Jewish baby boys are exposed to the threat of death from everyone around them solely because of their Jewish identity. And what really happened? “And the people multiplied and increased greatly.”
The biblical choice of describing the initial shaping of Jewish identity with a demographic event seems obvious, since the existence of a large population is necessary (albeit insufficient) for the creation of a nation. However, it is not all that simple. Look at today’s European countries whose "natural rate of increase" is so low that their populations are dwindling.  To maintain their economy, they must allow mass immigration from African and Muslim countries, which in turn, endangers the preservation of their identity for future generations. Perhaps, the demographic expression of the struggle for identity in our generation is the main story of the global era.
This is also a compelling contemporary Jewish story: the rate of natural increase in the state of Israel is the highest of all OECD countries by an astonishing amount (3.1 children per family and increasing in Israel versus 1.7 on the average and decreasing by other OECD members). In Israel, the demographic response to the Holocaust that annihilated one third of our people can be seen and heard in maternity wards with more beds than anywhere in the West. The predictors of gloomy demographic developments that would dwarf Israel’s Jewish majority have been proven false. This is not coincidence but rather, a noble expression of, “The Deed of the Mothers are a Sign for the Daughters.”
It is fascinating to discover that not only the “Hebrew women” guarantee our future, but that the state of Israel also participates in this effort in a major way. Couples challenged by infertility have the best chance in the world to have a non-spontaneous pregnancy. The funding of IVF ( In Vitro Fertilization )  in Israel from public monies is the most generous of anywhere and the relative number of IVF treatments per capita is the highest in the world. The state of Israel is the "Shifra and Puah" (the two midwives named in Exodus) of our generation.

Professor Yedidia Stern is President of The Jewish People Policy Institute and a professor of law at Bar-Ilan University. His wife, Dr. Karen Friedman, is the founder and director of Gefen Mind-Body Fertility Organization and the Hadassah-Rimon Center, non-profits that provide emotional and wellness support to fertility challenged women in Israel.

Translated by Felice Kahn Zisken

Login Form

Login Window