An interpretation and reading of Shemot Chapter 1
By Aubrey Isaacs
[At the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, teenage Jewish students from all over the world are exposed to a comprehensive survey of Jewish History from biblical times to the present. The following is a suggested reading of Shemot Chapter 1 that is used initially as an exercise in Torah text study. It is a lesson that we return to later in our programme when we study the rise of Nazism, with a suggestion that, according to one school of thought, Hitler had a very good teacher and predecessor – Pharaoh.]
This week’s Torah portion presents the frightening story of the enslavement of our ancestors in Egypt. After an optimistic opening to the Book of Shemot, in which we meet the Children of Israel settled comfortably in Egypt, enjoying prosperity, status and demographic growth, we quickly find them reduced to slavery, victims of persecution and bloodshed. How did the Egyptian authorities effect this rapid and dramatic change in the status and fortunes of the Hebrews?
The story opens in verse 8 with a change of government:
“There arose a new king over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” (1:8)
The new king distances himself from previous rulers. There is a conscious choice by the new administration to ignore the Israelite contribution to Egyptian society. This verse may remind us of the Nazi administration which chose to ignore Jewish contributions to Germany in so many fields and especially ignored the massive Jewish enlistment for Germany’s war effort in World War One.
“He said to his people. Look the nation of the children of Israel are more numerous and more powerful than us.” (1:9)
Pharaoh has redefined the population he rules. Only one group is termed “His People, “Us.” This is political propaganda and a new way of slicing up society as “us” versus “them.”
Pharaoh now begins to spread propaganda and lies: His statements sound like “There are millions of them.” “They multiply like rabbits.” “There are more of them than us.” He is employing gross exaggeration to create fear. Thousands of years later Hitler did the same, grossly exaggerating the numbers of Jews in Germany and spreading fear that they were about to overtake the German economy and government.
“Let us deal cleverly with them, lest they multiply and when a war happens they will join our enemies, fight against us and conquer the land.” (1:10)
The propaganda is based on an entire scenario that has not happened, and is in fact imaginary:
- There will be a war
- They will join the enemy
- They will fight against “us.” (By this time this distinction already sounds natural and accepted.)
- They will win, defeat us and conquer us
This fear mongering by Pharaoh may bring to mind Hitler’s famous speech to the German Reichstag in January 1939 claiming that international Jewry is guilty of pushing Europe towards war and his threat that should such a war break out it will lead to the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.
“They placed upon them taskmasters in order to afflict them with forced labour. They built store cities for Pharaoh, Pitom and Ramses.” (1:11)
At this point in the story the Hebrews are condemned to forced labour. It is certainly a form of discrimination but it falls short of actual slavery. They are still technically free and are under authority only of task masters. Meantime the work is defined and has a certain dignity – building garrisons or store cities. So we can imagine that initially the Israelites cooperate and say to themselves “It’s not so bad. It will soon blow over. Let’s not get them angry at us. Let’s show some good will.” It is hard not to be reminded of the reactions of many of Germany’s Jews starting from the early days of the Nazi takeover in 1933. They acknowledged that the situation was not good but assumed that it was temporary. They felt inconvenience but could not see that the early infringements of Jewish civil rights were actually only the first step towards the Final Solution.
“As they persecuted them so they increased and spread. But they (the Egyptians) despised the Children of Israel.” (1:12)
The initial methods employed by Pharaoh meet with partial success. The Israelite spirit has not yet been broken. We can maybe compare this to the phenomenon of the increase in expressions of Jewish identity and increase in religious observance in Nazi Germany after 1933. Yet the early stages are already doing terrible damage and a sense of hatred and disgust towards the Hebrews has been cultivated in the minds of the Egyptians. They have learnt to despise and have been psychologically prepared for the next phase.
“The Egyptians enslaved the Children of Israel with hard labour. They made their lives bitter with hard work with mortar and bricks and with all types of field labour. All the labour that was placed upon them was hard labour.” (1:13)
This next stage is already total slavery. The Israelites have been subjugated and deemed inherently inferior to all and every Egyptian. They are liable to perform any task no matter how hard, long or demeaning. They have been deprived of their citizenship and freedom, just as their descendents were formally excluded from citizenship in the Nuremberg Laws of 1935.
“The King of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives… When you give birth to the Hebrew women look at the birthing stool. If it is a boy, kill it but if it is a girl it may live.” (1:15-16)
This new stage constitutes the first act of actual genocide. But at this point the acts of bloodshed are veiled by secrecy. Pharaoh chooses to work undercover. His selected agents are midwives, women who have devoted their lives to childbirth and are therefore least likely to be suspected of destroying lives of babies. They are uniquely positioned to kill the baby boys simply and without mess by strangulation at birth and by then claiming that the baby was a stillborn. We see that at this point it is crucial for Pharaoh to maintain secrecy. Were he to be accused of ordering the killings he would deny it.
This may call to mind Hitler’s deliberate absence from the January 1942 Wannsee conference where the operative decisions to implement the Final Solution were taken. Hitler never visited any death camp. He attempted to distance himself from being seen as personally connected to the actual murder of Jews.
“The midwives feared G-d and did not do as the King of Egypt had told them but they saved the lives of the boys. The King of Egypt called them and said “Why did you do this and allow the boys to live?” And the midwives said to Pharaoh “the Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women as they are lively and give birth even before the midwives reach them.” (1:17-21)
All this is in parenthesis and is a tremendous story of heroism under conditions of Shoa. The chutzpa of the midwives in daring to disobey and challenge Pharaoh’s evil orders brings to mind inspiring stories from the Shoa of brave men and women such as Irena Sendler, Oskar Schindler and Tadeuscz Pankiewitz who dared to risk their own lives, to challenge the Nazi bestiality and save Jewish lives. This is a story of spiritual and physical resistance.
But as all students of Shoa know, the stories of resistance while admirable do not change the main story line. Frustrated by the resistance that he has encountered, Pharaoh changes policy and declares his murderous plans openly:
“Pharaoh commanded all his people saying, “Any boy born, throw them in the Nile…” (1:22)
This is mass murder, a “genocide” of the Hebrew boys. It is no longer a secret but has become official policy. The task of performing the genocide no longer lies with a select group of designated murderers but has become socially acceptable with an endless number of culprits involved in perpetrating the massacres.
This reading of Shemot Chapter 1 helps understand the process, how the Hebrews were slow to react to initial signs of discrimination and persecution, how Egypt was “educated” to be mentally prepared to commit acts of slaughter. It is tragic and disturbing how this story will play itself out again in the twentieth century and how the ancient words of the Torah sound chilling in their resemblance to the events of such recent times.
Born and bred in bonny Scotland, Aubrey served as Director of Jewish Education in Glasgow, Scotland and then for 11 years as Rabbi and then, Director of the WUJS Institute in Arad. Aubrey serves today as a senior Jewish Educator for the JNF – Alexander Muss High School in Israel, working with Jewish teenagers from around the world. Aubrey has a special love for the desert and lives in the northern Negev town of Arad.