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Parshat Sh’mot 5776: Coalescing Historical Accounts of the Evolution of Jewish Enslavement in Mitzrayim, Lessons for Today?
by Moshe Burt
In previous years, this author has indicated through various historical accounts, such as here and here, such as R’ Pliskin’s citings of R’ Chayim Shmuelevitz, by Rashi, by Rabbi Uziel Milevsky z’l in his sefer “Ner Uziel”, by R’ Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, z’l in the “New Hirsch Chumash”, the Kli Yekar regarding Parshat Vayechi, citings of the Slonimer Rebbe in Rebbetzin Smiles’ “Torah Tapestries”, historian Daniel Pipes, etc., that it is difficult to ascertain the precise time in Egyptian history, and which Pharaoh reigned at the outset of the cruel oppression and slavery of the B’nei Yisrael.
These various accounts allude to various historical accounts as to how it was that the “new” reigning Pharaoh had no recollection of Yosef having saved Egypt from famine, whether this Pharaoh was actually leader of a foreign nation which had conquered Egypt, or whether this Pharaoh had convenient politically expedient amnesia regarding Yosef, or was a new indigenous Pharaoh. Accounts also vary as to whether the B’nei Yisrael remained together in the “Jewish province” of Goshen, separated from the Mitzriyim, or whether they (other than the Levi’im) assimilated into the heartland of Egypt. And this author questions: How could it have been that the Jews could have assimilated in Egypt, discontinued Bris Milah, adopted Mitzri idolatrous ways and sunk to such a lowly moral state had they all remained together in Goshen?
R’ Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, z’l, in the “New Hirsch Chumash” renders and comments on posukim early in our Parsha (Sefer Sh’mot, Perek 1, posukim 8-9, pages 4-5):
“Now a new king rose up over Egypt, who knew nothing of Yosef.”
“And he said to his people: Lo! the B’nei Yisrael are a nation, too numerous and too mighty for us.”
“Now a new king rose up over Egypt” — V’yakam…al Mitzrayim” definitely does not imply a normal, legitimate succession to the royal throne. “Koom al” always denotes a violent overthrow. It seems therefore, that the old dynasty was overthrown and that the land and
people of Egypt fell to the power of a foreign dynasty which had invaded the country.
Had the new dynasty been an indigenous one, Yosef would not have been unknown to the new king. It is typical that the explanation for all of the enmity against the Jews… is that the king knew nothing of Yosef. The [Egyptian] people did know Yosef, and did not look askance at the Jewish province [Goshen] and at the Jewish people growing in it. They [the Egyptian people] considered the Jews benefactors, not as intruders, and did not feel deprived by the Jews’ prosperity.
…The Egyptians were undoubtedly more powerful and more numerous than the Jews living in Goshen — unless we assume… the foreign ruler brought with him to Egypt the people of his own foreign tribe…
The king turned to his own people, the invaders… he said: “The Egyptians we no longer fear, for they are already under our power.
But in the outlying province a tribe is growing too strong, and we will not be able to defeat them so easily.”
…Generally all of the phemonena of history are as old as history itself. Whenever a tyrant sought to oppress his subjects, he would deliver another people whom they [the indigenous subjects] in turn could afflict, and thus they [the indigenous subjects] would feel compensated for the oppression coming from above. This policy was the source of many of the decrees [throughout history] whose purpose was to afflict the Jews.
Similar considerations may have been motivated by the instigator [Pharaoh] of these, the very first anti-Jewish laws… He created a pariah caste, upon which the other castes could look down with contempt, thus self-assured, imagining themselves to be free men.
…Pharaoh found nothing with which to blame the Jews, except for their high birth rate, and that, to justify the harsh measures he intended to enact ["Come, let us deal cleverly with them..." Sefer Sh'mot, Perek 1, posuk 10] he had to cite reasons of “national interest”…]
Rabbi Milevsky writes in his Sefer “Ner Uziel” on on Parshat Sh’mot (p. 297-301), as does R’ Moshe Weissman at the beginning of “The Midrash Says” on Sefer Sh’mot (page 1):
While the Sh’vatim lived, the Jews remained on Goshen and continued in the ways of their forefathers and were dedicated exclusively to Divine Service.
Following the deaths of Yaakov and the sons, the moral fabric began to unravel. The values of the forefathers eroded, particularly among the young and newly-married couples. Although the B’nai Yisrael maintained their Hebrew names [and family purity], their distinct dress, their language, their kindnesses each toward the other, they begin to venture beyond the pale of separation from the Mitzriyim which was Goshen and beyond exclusive Divine service.
R’ Weissman cites The Chazon Ish in “The Midrash Says” on Sefer Sh’mot (page 1):
…When questioned about the actual moral standard of the B’nei Yisrael in Egypt, [The Chazon Ish] explained that despite the righteousness of the Jewish women and the open miracles which they experienced, they [the B'nei Yisrael] were steeped in idol worship. (The Chazon Ish, Letters 108-109)
Could it be that the accounts noted in this vort regarding the evolution toward B’nei Yisrael’s oppression, enslavement, persecution by the Mitzriyim and their reduction to a lowly moral state may all at least be partially accurate? It should be noted here that as Pharaoh devised his cunning plan to combat Jewish population growth by drafting, enticing and luring B’nei Yisrael ultimately into slavery under the guise of patriotism and national responsibility, the Levi’im remained in Goshen. (“The Midrash Says” on Sefer Sh’mot, page 5)
R’ Weissman notes (“The Midrash Says” on Sefer Sh’mot, page 6) and cites Rambam:
One Tribe of B’nei Yisrael was never drafted by Pharaoh, The Tribe of Levi. When Pharaoh issued the original proclamation, they did not appear at work, saying, “We are constantly engaged in Torah-study and have no time to come!” Subsequently, Pharaoh left them alone, and they remained free until the end of the exile. Had they stepped out of the Beit Hamidrash to volunteer their services for even one day, the consequences would have been two hundred and ten years of slavery!
The Levi’im had been instructed by their forefather Yaakov to concentrate on learning Torah. (Rambam, Akoo”m [goy] Alef, Gimmel)
Rabbi Zelig Pliskin (“Growth Through Torah”, Parshat Sh’mot, pages 138-140) quotes from the beginning of Sefer Sh’mot and cites both Ohr Hachayim and Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz in providing yet another dimension to the evolution of Jewish enslavement in Mitzrayim and profound lessons we need to internalize today:
“And Yosef died, and all of his brothers, and that entire generation.” (Sefer Sh’mot, Perek 1, posuk 6)
Ohr Hachayim explains that the enslavement of the Israelites by the Egyptians occurred in three stages. First Yosef died, the Israelites lost their power. Then the brothers died. As long as even one of the brothers was alive, the Egyptian still honored them. Even afterwards as long as the members of that first generation were alive, the Egyptians considered them important and were not able to treat them as slaves.
Rabbi Chayim Shmuelevitz…, commented .. that there are two aspects here. One is on the side of the Egyptians. They were unable to treat the Jewish people as slaves as long as they [the Egyptians] considered them important. The other aspect is on the side of the
Jewish people themselves. As long as they [the Jewish people] were considered important and worthy of respect by themselves [self-respect and self-esteem], the Egyptians were not able to treat them in an inferior manner. Only when they considered themselves in a lowly manner could they be subjugated by others.
Rav Chayim refers to this as how the evil inclination deals with people, i.e. that once a person feels inferior, feels a sense of guilt and worthlessness, “then he is easy prey for being trapped by the evil inclination….”
Rav Pliskin’s citings (“Growth Through Torah”, Parshat Sh’mot, ibid) connect self-respect and having respect for others, or lack of self-respect and resultant lack of respect for others with a citing in gemara Sanhedrin 37a regarding false testimony, i.e., that in capital punishment cases, the witnesses are told:
“In the beginning only one man was created. This is to teach us that whoever causes the death of one person is considered as destroying an entire world. Therefore each person is obligated to say, ‘The world was created for me’”…. Rashi explains….: “That is, I am as important as an entire world. Therefore, I will not cause myself to be destroyed for one transgression.” This, says Rashi, will prevent him from delivering the false testimony.
But in talking about the Jews’ descent into both moral/spiritual decline and into Egyptian oppression, enslavement and persecution, the apparent assimilation into Mitzri society and resultant loss of collective self-respect, are we not all witness to contemporary history as we view the lack of self-respect and resultant lack of respect for others resulting in false, slanderous testimony against one’s fellow Jews by Israel’s governing politicians, the police, the so-called “justice system”, academia, and media intelligencia? Do we not witness the creeping onset in modern-day medinat Israel of systemic persecution of Torah Judaism by an evil, secular, Hellenistic Israeli governance? Are we all not witness as the Hellenists frame us for “price-tag crimes” against Arabs, who in fact commit crimes against each other in order to frame Jews, while these very Arabs destroy our crops, bloody-handedly kidnap, kill and maim our brethren and seize, appropriate and build on Our Land with immunity? A recent Jewish Press piece on the alleged Jewish suspects in an arson attack at the Duma Village during the past summer speaks to this very issue. The article relates:
During hearings in the case of some of the detainees Tuesday it was revealed that they were not allowed to put on tefillin and light Chanukah candles. Attorneys Benzi Kovler and Hai Haber, representing the detainees on behalf of legal aid society Honenu, demanded that their clients be granted their basic religious rights of putting on tefillin and lighting Hanukkah candles.
Spiritual leaders Rabbi Dov Lior and Rabbi David Chai Hacohen sent an urgent letter to the Prime Minister. In it, the rabbis asked the PM to not lose his bearings and not torture prisoners whose guilt has not been proven. The rabbis said that Jews, too, deserve human dignity.
At the end of their letter, the rabbis wrote that in these days, when Arab terror hits us all over the country, our responsibility to defend the dignity of Jews is even greater, and they blessed the Prime Minister that he may be inspired by the Hasmoneans who raised the dignity of Israel among the nations, and that as it happened then we will also merit to receive miracles in our time.
Meanwhile, a corrupt and slanderous Israeli government arrests righteous Jews, accusing us either of vengeful “arson terror” or of “spying”, and “treason” because these righteous ones who cleave to and possess the Land of Israel, inform our fellow Jews that the Shabak and the army are on their way to uproot more Jews — bulldozing and destroying their homes on historical, Biblical Jewish Land and traumatizing their lives.
When a Jewish governance doubts its’ rights, its Divine entitlement to its’ own sovereignty on the entirety of its’ own Divinely-Given land, with nary a thought of the Divine Jewish mission statement, and thus subjugates and persecutes its’ own for acting to assert their Divine Legacy of possessing Eretz Yisrael, it is as if performing a clever, cunning rouse against the governed, the B’nei Yisrael which quietly acquiesces to oppression and persecution. Is it any wonder that murderous Arab snipers, suicide bombers, ambushers, drive-by attacks, green laser and arson attacks, land seizures and attempted kidnappings ensue? Is it small wonder that Arabs display their hands filled with Jewish blood? Contrast today with the days which immediately followed the Six Day War, when Arabs in Jerusalem, Hevron, etc. shivered, quaked and waved white sheets of surrender at the sight of a single Jew.
Are we not witness to ever-increasing polarization in Israel amongst the various sectors of Am Yisrael, including and particularly amongst the sectors of observant Jews? Are we blind to one sector, or a fraction of one sector, imposing and strong-arming its will — at the peril of physical violence, traffic disruption, material destruction and vandalism or verbal defamation — upon other sectors whose mesorah (learned chumras, traditions, etc.) seems not in accord with theirs? And does imposition and strong-arming of one’s ways onto others not constitute a form of false, slanderous testimony against another Observant Jewish sector? And does this false testimony not add fuel to a divide-and-conquer, Hellenistic Israeli governance?
There is another negative aspect which accompanies loss of Jewish self-respect and self-dignity. Commentators refer to the Jews as being as being descended from the Tzaddik Ever, the great-grandson of another Tzaddik — Shem, a son of No’ach. Ever, the name from which we are told “Iv’ri” (Hebrew) evolved, has been defined by commentators as “the other side”, separate, alone, i.e. “a nation which dwells alone.” And yet, as with the Jews in Mitzrayim post-Yosef and the brothers, where large numbers of Jews apparently left Goshen en-masse and inter-mingled with the Mitzriyim in Egypt proper, in the galut, we’ve melted and assimilated, again and again, in whatever nation we happen to reside at any point in history, misplacing our loyalties with another nation rather than with our Jewish nation, hoping that they, that nation, will come to love us and that they will remember our contributions to their society. Of course, this assimilation and misplaced loyalties for the nation of our temporary residence results in just the opposite of the desired “love”, in their hate and disdain for us, i.e. “dislike for the unlike”.
“…Egypt, who knew nothing of Yosef.”
And in our modern-day Jewish State, Medinat Yisrael, the politicians, the governance, the intelligencia, academia, the media and most of the governed yearn to be like the nations — to live the “normal” life. Seems as if we can’t get this intermingling and assimilation out of our national system.
In short, we’ve collectively lost our backbone, our uniqueness among the nations, as well as our own self-respect and self esteem in our projected desire to be “like the nations’ and thus, the nations see us not as “a light unto them”, but as a liability, as objects of derision, hate, subjugation.
Are we, as individuals, soo preoccupied with our individual needs and matzavim that we face a collective spiritual disconnect; i.e., between intellect and vocalization, and the heart and neshama, as our ancestors faced during the Egyptian oppression, slavery and persecution, with the result that we overlook V’Ahavta, L’Rei’echa, Kamocha; caring for the needs of our fellow Jews in other sectors, be they observant or secular? Are we so shallow, so narrow in view and bereft of ability to do our own cheshbon hanefesh regarding important national or local issues that we leave it to communal leaders to tell us what we must think, thereby leaving all of us prey, through polarization and lack of unity among various religious sectors, to the divide-and-conquer modus operendi of a governance dedicated to the dismemberment and eradication of Jewishness, of Yiddishkeit from the minds, hearts and souls of Israelis? And do some of these communal leaders consciously, or sub- consciously still have a mindset dating back to the guile of the ghetto, of the shtetl, of the hundreds of years which pre-dated modern-day Israeli nationhood — times when anything was justified to save a Jewish life? It would seem that Rav Shmuelevitz’s characterization of how an individual, a sector, or the entire Jewish nation views themselves rings true today, just as it did in Mitzrayim and throughout Jewish history:
“Only when they [the Jews] considered themselves in a lowly manner could they be subjugated by others.”
May we, the B’nai Yisrael be zocha that our brethren — the refugee families from Gush Katif be permanently settled and be made totally whole — be totally restituted for all that was stolen from them at leftist-agendized, supreme court legalized gunpoint, that our dear brother Jonathan Pollard be liberated and truly free — only upon his return home to Israel, and that Sholom Rubashkin, as well as the other MIAs be liberated alive and returned to us in ways befitting Al Kiddush Hashem, as should the remains of the two chayalim from the Gaza War of 1 1/2 years ago. May we have the courage and strength to stand up and physically prevent the possibility of Chas V’Challila any future eviction of Jews from their homes and the handing of Jewish land over to anyone, let alone to enemies sworn to Israel’s and Judaism’s destruction and eradication. May we fulfill Hashem’s blueprint of B’nai Yisrael as a Unique people — an Am Segula, not to be reckoned with as with “the nations” and may we be zocha to see the Moshiach, the Ge’ula Shlaima, as Dov Shurin sings; “Ki Karov Yom Hashem Al’Kol HaGoyim”, the Ultimate Redemption, bimhayrah b’yamainu — speedily, in our time”, — Achshav, Chik Chuk, Miyad, Etmol!!!
Moshe Burt, an Oleh, is a commentator on news and events in Israel and Founder and Director of The Sefer Torah Recycling Network. He lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh.