The Israelites, initially welcomed to Egypt at the end of the patriarchal era, experience a precipitous change of fortune after the death of Yosef and his generation.
A “new” Egyptian king initiates a campaign of persecution against the descendents of Yaakov, transforming them into a subgroup of slaves within the Egyptian population.
Why does the Torah dedicate twenty-two sentences of text to a detailed, step-by-step description of the enslavement of the Israelites at the hands of the Egyptians?
What eternal lessons can be gleaned from this tragic narrative?
The enslavement of the Israelites is not Pharaoh’s endgame. While the king clearly intends to benefit from the forced labor the Hebrew slaves will provide, he will ultimately be satisfied with nothing less than this fledgling people’s total destruction. Genocide, however, even when mandated by a mighty Pharaoh, cannot be perpetrated in a vacuum.
A careful reading of the text, therefore, reveals a frighteningly prescient reality. The first phase of our nation’s birth is shaped by a painful pattern. We become the targets of a blueprint for persecution which, tragically, will be reused over and over again during the ensuing centuries.
The purpose of Pharaoh’s malicious plan is twofold. On the one hand, as the Ramban explains:
“Pharaoh and his advisers could not attack [the Israelites] by the sword. An unprovoked attack upon a people that had originally come to Egypt at the invitation of the first king would be viewed as great treachery…. The [Egyptian] populace would not have allowed such an abomination.”
Instead, Pharaoh realizes, the stage must first be set. A painstaking, detailed plan must be set in motion that will render the destruction of the Israelites “acceptable” to their Egyptian neighbors.
On the other hand, Pharaoh must “prepare” the victims, as well. Slowly and inexorably robbed of their confidence, of any vestige of self-worth, the Israelites will be transformed into unwitting participants in their own demise.
We watch with horrible fascination as the stages of this plan unfold – details that, centuries later, are much too familiar for comfort.
Stage 1: Propaganda
“And a new king rose up over Egypt who did not know Yosef. And he said to his nation: ‘Behold the nation, the children of Israel are more numerous and stronger than we. Come let us be wise to them, lest they become numerous and it will be that if war occurs, they will join our enemies and wage war against us and go up from the land.’”
Persecution, the Torah testifies, inevitably begins with propaganda, with the verbal isolation of a people from surrounding society.
Clearly Pharaoh’s description of the Israelites as “more numerous and stronger” than the Egyptians is patently false, even ludicrous. And yet the king knows that lies, boldly spoken, will be readily accepted by those who want to believe them.
Pharaoh’s evil genius is also evident in his specific accusations against the Israelites. He consciously plays upon his own nation’s envy, xenophobia and fear of a fifth column within their borders. Why should we tolerate, he asks, a dangerous separate “nation” in our own land?
Stage Two: Isolation
“And they appointed taskmasters over them in order to afflict them with their burdens and they built storage cities for Pharaoh, Pitom and Raamses.”
Pharaoh’s edicts move to the next level with the designation of taskmasters and projects specific to the Israelites. These people are different, the Egyptian king proclaims through these actions, and the problems they create require special treatment.
The physical and psychological isolation of the Israelites is now complete.
Stage Three: Degradation
“And the Egyptians enslaved the children of Israel with crushing harshness (b’pharech).”
When the Israelites respond to Pharaoh’s initial decrees with resilience, the Egyptians ratchet the process up to the next level.
The biblical term b’pharech potentially conveys, according to the commentaries, varied aspects of this new level of persecution:
Rashi leads a number of scholars who, choosing the path of pshat (the straightforward explanation of the text), explain that the term refers to labor that crushes and breaks the body. Such toil has no real purpose beyond the physical torment and psychological degradation inflicted upon the laborers.
One particularly telling Talmudic source sees the word pharech as a consolidation of the two Hebrew words peh (mouth) and rach (soft). The Egyptians beguiled the Israelites with soft, enticing speech. Through lies and false promises of security, the taskmasters induced the slaves to cooperate in their own enslavement.
Stage Four: Murder
“And the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives…, ’When you deliver the Hebrew women, you shall see on the birthing stool, if it is a son you are to kill him, and if it is a daughter, she is to live.’
“And the midwives feared God and they did not do as the king of Egypt spoke to them….
“And Pharaoh commanded his entire people, saying: ‘Every son that is born – into the river you shall throw him! And every daughter – you shall keep alive!’”
Murder, particularly when carried out in the public arena, must be perpetrated slowly and cautiously. Pharaoh, therefore, opens the final devastating stages of his design against the Israelites in a manner that not only attacks the weakest among them but that can be carried out secretly. He commands the Hebrew midwives to kill the male infants in such a way that “even the birthing mothers themselves will remain unaware.”
When this subterfuge is thwarted by the righteous midwives, Pharaoh finally proclaims his true intentions and commands that all male infants be cast into the Nile. Even at this point, however, as the king’s malicious plan moves into the open, Pharaoh ingeniously shields himself from blame. The Ramban notes that Pharaoh couches this final, devastating edict in language that distances the murder from the official seat of government. The king does not command his army or his officers to carry out this terrible act. Instead, he instructs his “entire people” to murder the Hebrew infants. In retrospect, the king will be able to protest, What do you want from me? This was not an official action. This was a spontaneous, popular pogrom.
Points to Ponder
The uncanny ability of the Torah text to speak across the centuries is nowhere more clearly – nor more frighteningly – evident than in its description of the enslavement of the Israelites at the hands of the Egyptians. Here, openly rooted at the dawn of our history, are the very methods used against us and other innocent victims, to such devastating effect, by enemies in every era, including our own.
Adapted from one of the multiple essays on this parsha in Unlocking the Torah Text by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin.