Shemot: Nothing New Under The Sun – Pharaoh and Antisemitism

From the Patriarchs to Moses to today, our enemies employ the same doomed strategy.

Pharaoh thought he was being clever by decreeing a gradual descent into abuse.

Table for Five: Shemot 

Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

[Pharaoh] said to his people, “Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more numerous and stronger than we are. Get ready, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they increase, and a war befall us, and they join our enemies and wage war against us and depart from the land.”

– Ex. 1:9-10

Rabbi Abraham Lieberman, Judaic Studies, Shalhevet HS

The Lekach Tov (Rabbi Toviah ben Eliezer, 11th century) points out that until this verse the Jewish people had been referred to as Bnei Yisroel, the Children of Israel (Yaakov), from here and on, as Am Bnei Yisroel, the Nation of Israel. When one searches Tanach to see the usage of this exact phrase with these 3 words in the same order, an interesting point emerges, namely that this is the only place in all of Tanach where it is found. Twice later on (Shemot 3:10,7:4) Hashem will use the phrase AMI Bnei Yisroel, My People the Nation of Israel. 

I believe the significance can be easily understood in light of our history, and the verse becomes a prophetic outlook into how anti-Semitism develops. Jews are in a foreign land, they are viewed as “too numerous and too mighty.” Logically the enslaved Hebrews cannot be a larger or mightier group than the local Egyptian rulers, but their unity creates the impression that indeed they are. They have not committed any crimes or wrongdoing, yet the phobia-driven impression of them siding with an invading enemy fuels this fear. Echoes of Haman, and later of all antisemitic tracts are already hinted to these verses. National interests, throughout our Diaspora, living in so many lands, have always created limiting and sometimes harsh measures against us. The Rabbinic teaching of “Maasei Avot Siman L’Banim”, the acts that our forefathers went through are repeated with their children, comes true again.

Rabbi Elchanan Shoff, Beis Knesses Los Angeles

The Jews are different. Difference means competition: competing ideas, values, and thoughts. Jews are not identical to Egyptians, and thus a great potential source of trouble – they could join our enemies! We could be overthrown! There is a great misconception that many have. Namely, that shalom, peace, can only exist between people who are like-minded. In the book of Job, God is described as “making Shalom in His heavens.” The commentaries explain that the heavens have fire and water and yet they coexist. You see, shalom is the mechanism of two things coexisting, even when they have very different natures and styles. A kettle, says the Talmud, when seen in a dream represents peace. A kettle allows water and fire to coexist, and even work together! 

Sometimes, it’s worth withholding your opinion, and wiser to pretend to agree with a relative’s political positions. Not every thanksgiving dinner should be an ideological debate. But staying quiet and not expressing your feelings is not shalom at all! It’s avoiding conflict, surely a noble thing to do at times. Shalom is when we can express ourselves, be ourselves, even when different, and there’s place for everyone. It allows for harmony. “Torah scholars increase peace in the world,” say our sages. “When they argue about Torah they are like enemies but they love one another even more once they finish studying.” Bullying people into silence or toeing a party line will never bring us shalom. Shalom allows us to live together, and still remain unique.

Rabbi Nicole Guzik, Sinai Temple

When Pharaoh prophesied that the children of Israel would overcome him, his control tactics were cunning. According to Ramban, Pharaoh knew the Egyptians would disagree with drastic measures against the Hebrew slaves. And so, first came an innocuous levy, then secret orders to midwives to murder Jewish baby boys and subsequently, court vengeance against those that publicly murdered the children. In other words, Pharaoh was exacting his plan to keep both the Hebrew slaves and some Egyptians assuming the worst had already occurred. Pharaoh built an empire cemented with bricks of trust and fear. 

Pharaoh’s “shrewdness” directly aligns with symptomology associated with abusers. Most abusers do not start by first, physically hitting someone else. Abuse often begins with a series of tactics to maintain power without taking responsibility. Whether it is through isolating the person, taking over of finances or property, wielding influence by insinuating incompetence, the abused person may find it hard to “flee” because it seems like the worst is over. Just like Pharaoh, the home is interwoven with trust and fear. 

Later on, the Hebrew slaves blame Moses and Aaron for the added work Pharaoh assigns to their daily tasks. Pharaoh evades condemnation. In the eyes of the abused, it may be difficult to discern who is manipulating whom. The Torah opens our own eyes to how often, the manipulated do not know how and when to leave. May we all have Moses’ patience and act with courage and compassion, leading those we love towards unshackled paths.

Rabbi Michael Berenbaum, Professor of Jewish Studies and Director of Sigi Ziering Institute, American Jewish University

Ben Bag says: “Turn it over and turn it over for everything is in it.” Avot 5:22 is sometimes cited by traditionalists to declare secular knowledge unnecessary; everything that one needs to know is in the Torah. My experience was different. As a Yeshiva student, I came to serious secular learning, yet it empowered me to understand the Torah even more. 

Hegel wrote the dialectic of the Master and the Slave. The more enslaved the Master keeps his servants, the less he does for himself, the less capable he becomes. Gradually, the slaves’ capacity grows, and the master’s capabilities diminish. So the Master gradually loses power as the slave becomes empowered. 

When I read this for the first time, I thought of this verse in Shemot when Pharaoh teaches his people to become fearful that the Israelites will become more numerous and join with the enemy as a fifth column, His advice: nithachmah, deal shrewdly with them. Intuitively, Pharaoh understands that the slaves’ growing capability – which he craves and needs – poses a danger to his empowerment. 

Hegel’s concept of dialectic also enabled me to understand the Red Heifer, whose sprinkled ashes enable the Priest to purify the impure, while contaminating him. From Newton’s principles to Hegel’s dialectic, we came to understand that for every action, there is a reaction; in Newton’s case, an equal and opposite reaction. Certainly, one cannot purify without contact with the impure. Seen this way, the hok [non-rational law] of the Red Heifer is not quite as irrational as traditionally understood.

Rivkah Slonim, Associate Director, Chabad of Binghamton

Commentaries puzzle on God’s promise that the seed of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob would be as numerous as the stars of the sky and the granules of the earth. After all, Jews have never accounted for more than 0.2 percent of the world’s population.

Yet our impact and influence have been huge, causing our enemies—ancient and contemporary—to fear that we will “take over.” The fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe explained that Pharaoh’s true fear was of the Jews’ inherent holiness—being spiritually ”numerous and strong.” He was particularly unsettled by the possibility that they would wage war against “us;” that the Jews would seek to go beyond subduing and transmuting Egyptian culture that was steeped in immorality and idolatry. Pharaoh feared an “increase;” an attack on himself as the embodiment of the very root of all evil — egocentricity — which eclipses God consciousness.

Pharaoh therefore launched a “shrewd” assault: attacking their spiritual state rather than their bodies. Boys would be cast into the Nile (the iconic Egyptian deity); more insidiously, Jewish girls would be made to live immersed in Egyptian culture. By suffusing the Jews in Egyptian mores he hoped to defuse– if not completely obviate– their spiritual prowess.

With thanks to Rabbi Abraham Lieberman, Rabbi Elchanan Shoff, Rabbi Nicole Guzik, Rivkah Slonim and Rabbi Michael Berenbaum

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