Parsha Shemos 5773: The Evolution of Jewish Enslavement, and Bringing Redemption — Then (in Mitzrayim), and Now?

by Moshe Burt

To sufficiently comprehend the evolution of the enslavement of B’nai Yisrael in Mitzrayim, it would seem that one needs to comprehend the closed nature of the two preceding Parshiyot; the concluding posuk of Vayigash (Sefer Breish’t, Perek 47, posuk 27);

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 ((Sefer Breish’t, Perek 47, posuk 28);

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

We need to understand the gist of the noted commentator, the Kli Yekar; that the Sh’vatim, the Am, knowing that they were to be in Mitzrayim for a definite period of time which would be beyond their lifetimes. they thus perceived a permanence. Therefore, they adapted themselves to living in Mitzrayim 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.

The Sefer “The Midrash Says” introduction forward to Sefer Shemos traces the evolution of Jewish enslavement and persecution by noting that with the passage of time, and with Yaakov and the brothers — the tribal heads — all passing from the scene, the Am appeared to forget about their true home in Canaan, in Eretz Yisrael, or viewed their redemption as not in their lifetimes, and thus 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.

Against the passing of the Yaakov, and the subsequent passing of the generation of the 12 original tribal heads, one could summarize R’ Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, z’l, in the new Hirsch Chumash, Sefer Shemos (published by Feldheim in 2005 and translated to English by Daniel Haberman) on the beginning of Sefer Sh’mos (pages 1-11), as indicating on the first posukim, that it’s possible that Mitzrayim may 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, R’ Hirsch surmises that the foreign ruler could 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, giving them (the Mitzriyim) a false sense of security and freedom by persecuting this other group, in order to consolidate and solidify his power over the indigenous population. 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, as have others, concludes that far too often, it was the Jews who bore the brunt of being set up for subjugation by conquering powers.

One could therefore question:

Who is the “new king” of Shemos (Exodus) 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 theIsraelites 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.

A few 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.”

Rabbi Milevsky 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 that;

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

And so Pharoah fed that perception.

Rabbi Milevsky cites a story to illustrate how such a perception develops.

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? It is noted in the fictional storyline of Duaf of Memphis, one of a series of stories — “Almost Midrash,” by noted activist 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…

R’ Hirsch (the new Hirsch Chumash, Sefer Shemos (pages 1-11), then outlined the three steps which the Mitzriyim took to enslave andpersecute 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.

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.

And in Israel, the Jewish Homeland, are we watching the same Jewish historical storyline play out today? Are we all witness to history — the creeping onset of systemic slavery and persecution of Torah Judaism by an evil, secular, Hellenistic Israeli governance? They frame us for “price-tag crimes” against Arabs, while these very Arabs destroy our crops and steal and seize Our Land with immunity. Meanwhile, the corrupt and slanderous Israeli government arrests righteous Jews accusing us of “spying” and “treason” because the righteous inform our fellow Jews that the Shabak and the army are on their way to uproot more Jews — bulldozing and destroying their homes. Sharon’s expulsion and bulldozing of Jews from Gush Katif was just the first step of an evil regime whose current prime minister raised his hand in no uncertain terms to vote to expell Jews from Jewish land.

Are we all soo preoccupied with our individual needs and matzavim that we overlook V’Ahavta, L’Rei’echa, Kamocha; caring for 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 operendi of a 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 (the new Hirsch Chumash, Sefer Shemos) makes this profound statement in concluding his commentary on posuk 14 at the beginning of Parshat Shemos:

Perversion of justice is the source of all wrongdoing.

So against the entire backdrop above, enter Moshe Rabbeinu, Hashem’s Chosen leader designated as His Kli to bring about the Yetzi’at (Redemption of and going out of the Jews from) Mitzriyim.

There is one more point to consider. Rav Zelig Pliskin, in his Sefer “Growth Through Torah” writes a commentary citing Rabbi Chayim Shmuelevitz, the Mirrer Rosh HaYeshiva in Jerusalem (Sefer “Growth Through Torah”, pages 138-139):

“And Yosef died, and all his brothers, and that entire generation.” (Sefer Shemos, Perek 1, posuk 6)

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 wothlessness, “then he is easy prey for being trapped by the evil inclination….”

It would seem that Rav Shmuelevitz characterization of how an individual and a Jewish nation views themselves rings true today, just as it did in Mitzrayim and throughout Jewish history. When a Jewish governance doubts its’ rights to its’ own sovereignty on the entirety of its’ own Divinely-Given land and thus subjugates and persecutes its’ own for acting to assert their Divine Legacy of possessing Eretz Yisrael, is it any wonder that murderous Arab snipers, suicide bombers, ambushes, arson attacks, land seizures and 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.

“Only when they [the Jews] considered themselves in a lowly manner could they be subjugated by others.”

Rebbetzin Shira Smiles, in her “Torah Tapestries” on Sefer Shemot, pages 2-6 touched upon Moshe’s question of “why will the bush not burn up?” (madu’a lo yivar basneh? Sefer Shemot, perek 3, posuk 3) and on the Slonimer Rebbe’s loshen of kusta dechiyusa — kernel of vitality — which we may be more familiar with in the loshen “pintele yid.”

Regarding the burning bush which won’t be consumed, Rebbetzin Smiles quotes famous 19th century author Mark Twain:

Many have marveled at the Jewish nation’s… tenacity in the face of adversity. Even Mark Twain wrote about about the Jews: “The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian arose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dreamstuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they were gone; other peoples have sprung up up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in the twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all and is now what he always was. What is the secret of his immortality? (“Concerning the Jews, ” Harper’s Sept., 1899.)

The Rebbetzin cites the Slonimer Rebbe who discusses how the Jews had deteriorated to almost the lowest level of impurity:

…Nevertheless, there remained one small kernel deep within them [the Jews] that had not succumbed to the impure forces. This kusta dechiyusa would be the spark to reignite the life of the Jew is the power of emunah (belief). Emunah is the most basic element of the neshamah (soul) of the Jew. As long as it still existed within the neshamah of the Jews, there was hope. Emunah is the point of origin.

When everything external is destroyed, we can still start anew as long as a spark of emunah exists.

Moshe Rabbeinu thought that this power of emunah had been lost or critically damaged in the impurity of Egypt. Later he explicitly states this concern:

“And they will not believe me and will not listen to my voice, because they will say, ‘Hashem did not appear to you’.” (Sefer Shemot perek 4, posuk 1)

When Moshe Rabbeinu did not see evidence of emunah in Am Yisrael, he doubted their ability to survive and asked “madu’a lo yivar basneh?”

We can only hope and pray that this kusta dechiyusa or pintele yid lives on despite pervasive assimilation of Jews in the Galut, and amongst Am Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael despite a cruel, evil regime’s best efforts to squash it. May this kusta dechiyusa burn brightly and bring the Ge’ula Shlaima.

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 brethren Jonathan Pollard and Sholom Rubashkin, as well as the other MIAs be liberated alive and returned to us in ways befitting Al Kiddush Hashem. 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 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.