Shemot – slavery, genocide, resistance, redemption

One of the questions raised by the Israelite slavery in Egypt is: why was this suffering part of G-d’s plan at all? One rabbinic explanation is that G-d wanted the children of Jacob/Israel to become a nation and Canaan was not the right place for it. In Egypt the Israelites lived separately in Goshen and were not as influenced by the idolatry in the way they would have been in Canaan. The process of becoming as numerous as the stars in the sky and the dust of the earth, according to G-d’s promise to Abraham, is described in this parsha: they were fruitful, swarmed, increased and became very strong. (If this sounds familiar, it’s because we read it every year in the Haggadah.) The opening sentences of this book emphasise that the children of Jacob numbered 70 in total when they arrived, but later, when they leave Egypt, there are 600 thousand men. G-d had another master plan as well. He tells Abraham that he can’t have the land of Canaan as yet: the sins of the Canaanites had not yet reached their limit. Four hundred years must pass.

Another outcome of the slavery is that the Israelites would know that slavery is essentially unjust and cruel, and that even though it was later permitted, there were many restrictions and laws to limit its duration and injustice. “You shall not oppress a stranger – because you were strangers in the land of Egypt” – and you know what it’s like. Yet another aspect of the slavery is that G-d insists that we be servants to Him, and not to human beings. This is expressed in the command to keep Shabbat: we don’t slave away for our bosses because one day is for remembering G-d, and remembering that we are human beings, free to express our spiritual and national relationship with a Higher Being. The ultimate business is one which boasts that it is “Open Six Days”, “24/6”.

One more aspect of Egypt worth recalling is that this country was the superpower and highest culture of its time, and yet G-d defeated Pharaoah and all he stood for. The King of Kings beats the King of Egypt. G-d had everything planned ahead – after they left Egypt they would receive the Torah on the same Holy mountain where Moses saw the burning thornbush, and then they would inherit the land flowing with Milk and Honey, as had been promised to the patriarchs. It doesn’t do to be impatient, but all the promises did come true. Today’s State of Israel is the rebuilding of this same land, flowing with milk and honey and computer start-ups. The back-breaking effort with which the founding fathers of the modern state rehabilitated the land, removing barren rocks, eradicating malarial swamps and planting trees and crops expressed this eternal Jewish love for the land of milk and (date) honey. After many years absence, this writer was awe-struck by the sheer number of date palms growing in the desert on the way to the Dead Sea. And yet this is not “avodah befarech”, senseless hard work which was the slavery in Egypt, but the creative and dignified labour of the First Aliyah and Second Aliyah labour movements, with the help of JNF and other grassroots organisations.

So a new king arose in Egypt who “did not know Joseph”. This is reminiscent of the misery of the patriotic German Jews who were persecuted and murdered by Hitler’s regime despite their medals for bravery in World War I, and despite their immersion and deep love for German culture. After slavery did not stop the Israelites from multiplying, the king enlists the help of midwives in killing the male babies at birth. But “the midwives feared G-d”. They stood up to the king when they followed their consciences, and had an alibi ready to explain their refusal to comply with this genocidal directive. What an example of fearless behaviour, and a role model to everyone. Then Pharaoh enlists his own people to throw the male babies into the river. Yocheved’s decision to place Moshe in the river, but in a waterproof basket, is a curious way of circumventing his fate while complying outwardly with this edict. Then Pharaoh’s daughter herself saves the future leader of the Israelites by directly disobeying her own father’s command. Her behaviour illustrates the halachic ruling that honouring one’s parents does not include breaking Torah laws. Perhaps this also illustrates that familiarity breaks through propaganda: to Egypt Pharaoh was a god, but not to his daughter. Another famous example of this is Stalin’s daughter, who left Russia to escape the tyranny of her monstrous mass-murdering father, who yet was revered almost as a god by millions of his populace due to his pervasive propaganda. (Before becoming head of the Soviet Union, Stalin was head of propaganda.)

Moses is at first passionate at defending his people, impulsively killing an Egyptian taskmaster that was beating an Israelite. The word “brothers” is repeated several times, and makes one think he had just discovered that they were his brothers. The film “Prince of Egypt” portrays this process very convincingly. And yet, after many years in Midian, when at the burning thornbush G-d asks him to go and liberate the Israelites, Moses is extremely reluctant and lacking in confidence. He argues with G-d and thinks of all the things that can go wrong. In fact, he is realistically predicting the difficulties, but as a two-man act with his brother Aaron, and with a few magic tricks, he is soon ready to go. His reluctance to undertake the task is so real. How many of us are afraid to take on leadership positions because we are not sure we have what it takes. The Torah shows it is better to be a little lacking in confidence rather than to be in love with power. Confidence can be gained, but the abuse of power is more problematic. Yet Moses’ upbringing in the Palace is an important part of his leadership mindset. He was never a slave. Later in the book of Samuel, we see that King Saul’s lack of confidence is problematic, as he fears people more than he fears Elokim. Yet the Redemption is a long process, and things get worse before they get better. Pharaoh meets the first demand of G-d through Moses and Aaron to “Send out my people to worship Me in the desert” by taking away the straw for the bricks, while keeping the brick quota the same. The Jewish taskmasters (later copied by Hitler in the concentration camp Kapos) complain to Pharaoh, and then to Moses and Aaron that they have made them “stink” in the opinion of Pharaoh. Moses then complains to G-d – you’re just making it worse. But G-d explains that this is the rock-bottom situation that had to be reached before the redemption began: “Now you will see what I will do with a strong hand..” How many times do we despair, thinking things will never improve. And when we try to increase our assertiveness, we are often met by a stronger resistance. But, as Bob Dylan has memorably sung, “They say the darkest hour is just before the dawn.”

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