This week, our Parshat HaShevua — Parshat Shemos is being sponsored by Binyamin and Tracy Skriloff of Ramat Beit Shemesh dedicated for a Refuah Shleima for Binyamin’s Mother Chana Bat Sarah. To Mishpochat Skriloff, many thanks for your sponsorship, and your continued kindnesses.
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In previous vorts on Parshat Shemos, this author has discussed the various historical accounts, and queries regarding possible historical time periods, during which the evolution of Jewish enslavement in Mitzrayim occurred; whether a foreign nation had conquered Egypt and installed its Pharaoh over Egypt, or whether the Pharaoh of Yosef’s time was overthrown by his own advisors and developed convenient politically expedient amnesia regarding Yosef and the Jews in order to return to power, or whether the Pharaoh who subjugated the Jews was a new indigenous Pharaoh.
Also discussed were the evolution of the Jews’ degradation, enslavement and persecution in Mitzrayim, which began with the anti-semitic canards and blood-libelous propaganda which have been repeated throughout our history.
These canards and propaganda have been used to justify pogroms, persecutions, mass murders and gas chambers through to today’s murderous attacks upon Jews in Israel via drive-by shootings and stonings, rocket, firebomb, sniper and fiery kite attacks.as well as hate, violence and intimidation of Jews on both the world’s university campuses and classes as well as among politicians while continually attempting to deny the Jews’ Divinely mandated legacy of Eretz Yisrael.
A number of years ago at this time this author discovered a Sefer in the Shul’s bookcase; “Ner Uziel: Perspectives on the Parsha” by Rabbi Uziel Milevsky z’l. R’ Milevski writes on Parshat Shemos (p. 297-301), as does R’ Moshe Weissman at the beginning of “The Midrash Says” on Sefer Shemos (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’nei 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.
Rabbi Milevsky adds clarity to the Jews’ evolution into bondage in Mitzriyim: “Ner Uziel” on Parshat Shemos, page 297-301 refers to Perek 1, posuk 7 which reads;
“The B’nei 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 Mitzrayim.
We would understand that the Jews, other than the Levi’im who remained in Goshen, gradually assimilated into Egyptian society and excelled in all fields of endeavor.
…When the Jews excelled in their professional fields of endeavor such that everywhere the Mitzriyim turned, they found Jews, a perception developed that;
“…They became so numerous that the land was filled with them.”
And so Pharaoh fed that perception with his dehumanizing propaganda.
Rabbi Shmuel Goldin cites Sefer Shemot, Perek 1, posuk 9-10 and comments on Pharaoh’s propaganda campaign in his sefer “Unlocking the Torah Text” (Sefer Shemot, pages 4-5):
“And a new king rose up over Egypt who did not know Yosef. And he [the new king] said to his nation: ‘Behold the nation, the B’nei Yisrael 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.'” (Rabbi Goldin citing Sefer Shemot, Perek 1, posuk 9-10)
Persecution, the Torah testifies, inevitably begins with propaganda, with the verbal isolation of a people from surrounding society.
Clearly, Pharaoh’s description of the B’nei Yisrael 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 B’nei Yisrael. 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?
Previous vorts also discussed were perils of assimilation for the Jews, from the evolution of enslavement in Mitzrayim, throughout our history and particularly in our generations, and how the Levi’im remained in Goshen, mostly separated from the enslavement and persecution of the rest of Am Yisrael, learning Torah.
R’ Weissman writes (“The Midrash Says” on Sefer Sh’mot, page 6) citing 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 Goldin now discusses the next levels of Pharaoh’s blueprint; isolation, degradation and murder (“Unlocking the Torah Text”, Sefer Shemot, pages 5-7):
Pharaoh’s edicts move to the next level with the designation of taskmasters and projects specific to the B’nei Yisrael. These people are different, Pharaoh proclaims through these actions, and the problems they create require special treatment.
The physical and psychological isolation of the B’nei Yisrael is now complete.
“And the Egyptians enslaved the B’nei Yisrael with crushing harshness. (b’pharech)” (Rabbi Goldin citing Sefer Shemot, Perek 1, posuk 13)
When the B’nei Yisrael respond to Pharaoh’s initial decrees with resilience, the Egyptians ratchet up the process to the next level.
The Biblical term “b’pharech” potentially conveys, according to the commentaries, varied aspects of this new level of persecution [degradation]:
Rashi leads a number of scholars who… explain that the term refers to labor that crushes and breaks the body. (Rabbi Goldin citing Rashi on Sefer Shemot, Perek 1, posuk 13) Such toil has no real purpose beyond the physical torment and psychological degradation inflicted upon the laborers.
Some Talmudic sages suggest that, in order to mock and demean the slaves, men’s work was given to the B’not Yisrael and women’s work was given to the men. (Rabbi Goldin citing Talmud Bavli Mesechta Sota 11b)
…One… Talmudic source sees the word “b’pharech” as a consolidation of the two Hebrew words peh (mouth) and rach (soft). The Egyptians beguiled the B’nei Yisrael with soft, enticing speech. Through lies and false promises…, the taskmasters induced their slaves to cooperate in their own enslavement. (Rabbi Goldin again citing Talmud Bavli Mesechta Sota 11b)
Only after the physical and psychological subjugation of the B’nei Yisrael has reached a critical point can Pharaoh embark on his true plan, the physical destruction of this… nation.
Murder, however, particularly when carried out in the public arena, must be perpetuated slowly and cautiously. Pharaoh… opens the final devastating stages of his design against the Jews 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 will remain unaware.” (Rabbi Goldin citing Ramban on Sefer Shemot, Perek 1, posuk 10)
….To protect himself, the Egyptian king wants the extermination of the Jews to begin in territory that carries a degree, however slight, of moral ambiguity. The Talmud postulates that Pharaoh conveyed to the midwives a method of determining the sex of the children of B’nei Yisrael before their birth. (Rabbi Goldin again citing Talmud Bavli Mesechta Sota 11b) Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch explains that, in this view, Pharaoh is deliberately commanding abortion rather than infanticide. (Rabbi Goldin citing Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch on Sefer Shemot, Perek 1, posuk 16) “We are not really murdering male Jews. We are only preventing their birth.”
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…, 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. (Rabbi Goldin again citing Ramban on Sefer Shemot, Perek 1, posuk 10) 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.”
Rabbi Goldin concludes (ibid, page 10):
Laid down at the beginning of time, the painstaking tactics of prejudice and persecution have remained remarkably constant. Evil will be defeated only if these initial tactics are recognized when they first appear and confronted head-on.
Rabbi Zelig Pliskin (“Growth Through Torah”, Parshat Shemos pages 138-140) cites comments from Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz:
…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 Jews] 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.
In other words, as this author understands, as long as the Jews held themselves apart from, rather than seeking to blend into Mitzri society, as long as they held to the principles and ideals of the Avos, maintained their self respect and avoided straying toward idolatry, the Egyptians considered them worthy of respect. And to again emphasize the final comment of this R’ Shmuelevitz citing:
Only when they [the Jews] considered themselves in a lowly manner could they be subjugated by others. (“Growth Through Torah”, Parshat Sh’mot, ibid.)
R’ Weissman also writes (“The Midrash Says” in his foreword on Sefer Shemos, page x):
Their stay [the Jews] in Egypt served to mold our people into a unique nation. The Torah, for this reason, terms Egypt the “iron melting pot” [the “kor barzel”] since in that land the members of Yaakov’s family were forged into a people unequaled by any other on earth. They became a nation which excelled in doing chesed with one anther, which maintained flawless moral standards in the face of unrestrained corruption, which deserved to be termed… distinguished since they retained their distinctive… character traits. Notwithstanding these praises, the Jews at large were steeped in the idolatrous cult of Egypt,… and as a result, most… did not live to experience the Yetziyat Mitzrayim. Those who did survive, however, possessed the necessary greatness to be elevated to the highest levels and were worthy of receiving the Torah.
May we, the B’nei 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 and that the twice expelled families of Amona be restored to their rebuilt homes, at government expense; both due to alt-leftist-agendized, supreme court legalized Yassamnik gunpoint. May our dear brother Jonathan Pollard be liberated and truly free — which can only occur when he is home in Israel and carrying for his ill wife Esther Yocheved bat Rayzl Bracha, and that the MIAs be liberated alive and returned to us in ways befitting Al Kiddush Hashem — as with the return in April, 2019, via Russia, of the remains of Zachariah Baumel, as should the remains of the two chayalim from the Gaza War of five 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 prevent Chas V’Challila 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.