Parshat Shemos 5771: Assimilation and the Evolution of Jewish Enslavement — In Mitzrayim, and Now (?)

by Moshe Burt

To sufficiently comprehend the evolution of the enslavement of B’nai Yisrael in Mitzriyim, it would seem that one needs to comprehend the closed nature of the two preceding Parshiyot; the concluding posuk of Vayigash;

And Yisrael dwelt in the land of Mitzriyim in the land of Goshen, and they acquired property in it and… multiplied greatly

and the first posuk of Vayechi;

And Yaakov lived in the land of Mitzrayim for seventeen years…

We need to understand the gist of the Kli Yekar; that the Sh’vatim, the Am, knowing that they were to be in Mitzriyim for a definite period of time beyond their lifetimes thus perceived a permanence. Therefore, they adapted themselves to living in Mitzriyim long-term and were thus vulnerable to Mitzri “encouragement” to melt, to assimilate into Mitzri society, to work for the nation, etc. The B’nai Yisrael began to accumulate wealth, land, assets, material possessions as they grew in numbers from 70 souls to 600,000 during Yaakov’s 17 years in Mitzrayim, as stated in the Judaica Press Chumash volume 3 re: Parsha Vayechi.

With the passage of time, and with Yaakov and the brothers — the tribal heads all passing from the scene, the Am forgot about their true home in Canaan, in Eretz Yisrael, and became complacent in Mitzriyim. And with the passing of heads of B’nai Yisrael, the Am no longer retained an elevated status in the eyes of the Mitzriyim who quickly forgot how Yosef saved them from famine.

Two years ago at this time this author discovered a Sefer in the Shul’s bookcase; Ner Uziel: Perspectives on the Parsha, where Rabbi Uziel Milevsky z’l adds substantial clarity to the Jews’ evolution into bondage in Mitzriyim.

Ner Uziel on Parshat Shemos (p. 297-301) refers to Perek 1, posuk 7 which reads;

“The B’nai Yisrael were fruitful and they bred… they became so numerous that the land was filled with them.”

Rabbi Milevsky finds the Torah’s loshen for bred; “vayishretzu” disturbing. He notes that “vayishretzu” comes from the root word; sheretz = rodent, i.e. that;

“The Jewish people multiplied like rats.”

Rashi, on our posuk, notes that even with the miraculous birth rate of 6 children at a time, the Jews couldn’t have filled the land of Mitzriyim.

So why this loshen “vayishretzu”?

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, their distinct dress, their language, their kindnesses each toward the other, they begin to venture beyond the pale of seperation from the Mitzriyim which was Goshen and beyond exclusive Divine service.

Rabbi Milevsky notes that the Egyptians of the time “were notorious anti-semites.

We know that the Jews gradually assimilated into Egyptian society and excelled in all fields of endeavor. This is what is implied by Perek 1, posuk 6;

“Yosef died, and all of his brothers and that entire generation.”

Rabbi Milevsky noted that traditional Jews bore little resemblance to their neighbors, i.e. dress, laws and a different language. As a result, one could use an old R’ Motti Berger Aish HaTorah analogy; there was a “dislike for the unlike.”

He notes that some theorized that if they would only abandon their foreign beliefs (they maintained their unique dress, names and language) and melt into Mitzri society, the Mitzrayim would welcome them with open arms. They were bitterly disappointed when they found that the more they adopted Mitzri ways, the more they were hated.

Further, when the Jews excelled in their professional fields of endeavor such that everywhere the Mitzrayim turned, they found Jews, a perception developed among the Mitzriyim that;

“…They became so numerous that the land was filled with them.”

And so Pharoah fed that perception.

Rabbi Milevsky cited a story to illustrate how such a perception developes.

A prominent Rabbi from the US travelled to Mexico City and was being driven by a Mexican cabbie. The Rabbi asked the driver how many people there were in Mexico City. The cabbie responded that Mexico City was the largest city in the world with a population of 20 million.

The Rabbi then asked him how many Jews lived there. The cabbie’s response; “Senior, there are muchos muchos Jews living there. (Rabbi Milevsky notes that there were 35,000 Jews there at the time.) The cabbie added that “there are at least 4 to 5 million Jews.”

Rabbi Milevsky then brings out why the Mexican cabbie had that impression; Jews owned the apartment building where he lived, the surgeon who operated on his mother was a Jew, a Jew owned his bank — all of this fed the driver’s perception regarding the Jewish population in Mexico City.

Likewise, the Mitzrayim were convinced that Jews filled the country — thus the loshen “vayishretzu”.

Rabbi Milevsky then related that Hashem punished the B’nai Yisrael in accordance with their sin. Since they assimilated and abandoned the Jewish moral code of their Avos, either a new King took the throne who didn’t know Yosef, or the same King pretended not to know Yosef.

How can this be? Referring back to the fictional storyline of Duaf of Memphis, one of a series of stories — “Almost Midrash,” by Jay Shapiro;

“Yosef saved Mitzrayim and will go down in the annals of history.”

But how quickly they “forgot” Yosef.

Rabbi Milevsky notes that Yosef was to Mitzriyim as Abraham Lincoln was to the U.S. Such an influential person in a nation’s history is not easily forgotten. But the Pharoah of the time considered Yosef’s leadership and accomplishments as a blight on Mitzri history. All of this would seem to jive with “The Midrash Says'” description of the evolution of Jewish enslavement, Almost…

In reading the brand spanking new Hirsch Chumash (published by Feldheim in 2005 and translated to English by Daniel Haberman) on the beginning of Sefer Sh’mos (pages 1-11), one could summarize R’ Shimshon Rafael Hirch, z’l as indicating on the first posukim, that Mitzrayim could have been conquered by a foreign power whose ruler (or could one conclude that it was the foreign ruler’s appointee?) became Pharoah over Mitzrayim. As such, the foreign ruler would have then set up another group of foreigners residing in Mitzrayim (in this case, Am Yisrael) for subjugation in order to compensate the Mitzri people in order to consolidate and solidify his power over the population which he sought to subordinate. R’ Hirsch also indicates that this modus operendi is seen throughout history when nations are conquered by foreign powers. As an observer of history, this author concludes that far too often, it was the Jews who bore the brunt of being set up for subjugation by conquering powers.

However, corrolating R’ Hirsch’s take on the evolution of Jewish enslavement and persecution seems quite difficult to impossible due to great disparities between googled sources like this one, and Jewish historical chronologies. These disparities range from at least 200 to 500 years in terms of which Pharoah reigned in the times of Yosef and the deaths of the brothers and the ensuing enslavement, in which era and Dynasty, what Pharoah’s name was and what wars were fought when. And in the process of searching, it seems likely that ancient historians may have obscured or obliterated hundreds of years of Mitzri history, as Middle East expert Daniel Pipes claims. But it seems that Pipe’s dates are off as well, by about 175 years as to when Yaakov entered Mitzrayim and, in a later citing regarding the beginning of the reign of Shlomo HaMelech. The closest chronology seen by this author is one compiled by a Rabbi Hochheimer where it nearly agrees, only being off by 4 to 20 years and with agreement as to the date the Jews left Mitzrayim in 1313 BCE. But it is a mere snapshot chronology with no corrolating history as to which reign, what wars connection with Yosef and the Jews.

There are also those who write claiming that Yosef interpreted Pharoah’s dreams and was thus appointed Viceroy during a period when a foreign power held the seat of government and the Kingship in Mitzrayim. They claim that it was this Pharoah who designated that Yaakov and the brothers settle in Goshen and who had an affinity with the Jews. The Freeman Institute, whose dates also seem disparate from Jewish chronology — off by about 140 years, indicates that:

Joseph was promoted… in the middle of the Hyksos occupation of Egypt. But it is impossible to identify the individual before whom Joseph appeared, because the dating and succession of Hyksos kings remains indemonstrable today.

One could therefore question:

Who is the “new king” of Shemos 1:8 who “came to power in Egypt” and “did not know Joseph”? Was this new pharaoh Egyptian or Hyksos? What was the identity of the pharaoh who initially refused, but eventually was obliged to acquiesce to Moses’ demand that the Israelites should be released from bondage?

Perhaps one could theorize that if it was a Hyksos Pharoah whose dreams Yosef interpreted and who appointed him Viceroy and who ceded Goshen to the Jews, then pehaps the “New Pharoah” who “didn’t know of Yosef” was a Mitzri who became King when the Mitzriyim ousted the Hyksos invaders. Then it could be very understandable how the Mitzriyim would disdain the Jews who had by then penetrated Mitzrayim proper and could be found in all sectors of society; the trades, professions, arts, theatrical, business, economic, etc.

And so, a Pharoah schemed the enslavement of the Jews — mida keneged mida — to isolate the Jews from Mitzri Society.

We have seen this same storyline — assimilation of the Jews into Gentile societies and eventual, resultant persecution — play itself out in Jewish history again and again through modern-day in Chutz L’Aretz as millions of Jews to date have erred in choosing to melt into the society in which they live (actually; reside) and to accept what are often the distorted laws and mores of that society.

R’ Hirsch then outlined the three steps which the Mitzriyim took to enslave and persecute the Jews.

  • 1) Taxation where they, the foreigners “could be made to pay any price for very air they breathed.”
  • 2) They were stripped of their citizen’s rights, were unprotected by law, forced into slavery and degraded in Mitzri eyes such that ALL Mitzriyim, not just those in powerful positions, could treat them as slaves.
  • 3) Their slavery consisted of hard labor, incompatible with their individual strengths and abilities. This type of slavery was designed to crush their strength. This kept them from taking any pride in their labor and embittered their lives.

R’ Hirsch, in his commentary on Perek 1, posuk 14, contrasted the Mitzri treatment of foreigners residing in Egypt with Ger’im living in Eretz Yisrael and Jewish law concerning foreigners;

Complete equality to the native born and the stranger is a basic characteristic of Jewish law…. The homeland does not grant human rights, rather human rights grant the homeland…. Whoever accepted upon himself the Sheva Mitzvot B’nai Noach (7 Noachide Laws — this author) could claim the right of domicile in Yehudah.

Are we watching the same Jewish historical storyline play out today, here in Israel? Are we all soo preoccupied with our individual needs and matzavim that we overlook V’Ahavta, L’Rei’echa, Kamocha; the needs of our fellow Jews in other religious sectors thereby leaving all of us prey, through lack of unity, to the divide-and-conquer modus operende of governance dedicated to the dismemberment and eradication of Jewishness, of Yiddishkeit from the minds, hearts and souls of Israelis? Does “justice” in today’s medinat Yisrael stand in total disdain and disregard for R’ Hirsch’s explanation of Jewish law regarding foreigners? It would seem, at least to this author, that a certain slogan concerning Arabs and terrorism is well within the relm of how R’ Hirsch describes Jewish law, although it may not jive with the contemporary medina’s concept of agendized, politically-correct “justice.”

One could add that this reckless divide-and-conquer governance and politically-correct “justice” puts at peril ALL sectors of Jewish Israel, even and maybe particularly the Chilonim. R’ Hirsch makes this profound statement in his Chumash in concluding his commentary on posuk 14 at the beginning of Parshat Sh’mos:

Perversion of justice is the source of all wrongdoing.

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 (restituted for all that was stolen from them at leftist agendized, supreme court legalized gunpoint), that our dear brother Jonathan Pollard, captive Gilad Shalit and the other MIAs be liberated alive returned to us in ways befitting Al Kiddush Hashem. May we have the courage to prevent the eviction of Jews from their homes and the handing of Jewish land over 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 V’Kol HaGoyim”, the Ultimate Redemption, bim hay v’yameinu — speedily, in our time”, — Achshav, Chik Chuk, Miyad, Etmol!!!

Good Shabbos!

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.