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The Avodah Blog

The Seeding of Slavery, The Making of Tyranny: A Folktale of the Politics of Oppression: D’var Torah for Parashat Sh’mot

And, then, all of a sudden, we were enslaved. This week, we begin the book of Sh’mot/Exodus. Before we can even get settled in our seats, we’re plunged into slavery, in just a few verses. How did it happen? How did a minority group who had received favorable immigrant status and lived successfully in a country for several generations, even encouraged by the host country to have land in which to practice and maintain their unique cultural practices, get plunged into slavery and partial genocide? What were the mechanisms that enabled the turning of these tables? How does a multicultural superpower country turn to tyranny? 

Let’s review the opening of our parasha. The first seven verses just list the names of Ya‘akov’s family, tell us that Yosef and his entire generation died, and inform us that the “Israelites were fruitful, and swarmed, and multiplied, and became very, very vast, and the land was filled with them” (1:7). Against that backdrop, the political upheaval is unleashed:

8 And a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Yosef. 9 And he said to his people, “Look, the people of the children of Israel is more numerous and vast than we. 10 Come, let us outsmart it, lest it multiply; and then, should war occur, even join our enemies and fight against us and go up from the land.” 11 So they set forced labor masters over them so as to abuse them with their burdens; and they built store cities for Phara‘oh: Pithom and Ra‘amses. 12 But the more they abused them, the more they multiplied and the more they spread out, so they loathed the Israelites.

  1. Power Analysis: Who is this King Politically?

The reversal of the Israelites’ fortunes hinges on a regime change, but the Torah’s description of this king’s ascent to the throne is very strange: “a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Yosef.” Here’s a signature example of how the Bible typically describes standard regime changes (Bereishit/Genesis 36:31-34):

“And these are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom before any king reigned for the Israelites: Bela‘ ben Be‘or reigned in Edom and the name of his city was Dinhava. And Bela‘ died and Yovav ben Zerah from Botzrah reigned in his place. And Yovav died and Husham, from the land of the Yemenite, reigned in his place…”

First of all, our passage does not mention that the previous king died, which we would expect. Second, the usual verb describing the beginning of a regime is Vayimlokh/וַיִּמְלֹךְ”, the verb form of the word “melekh/מֶֶלֶך” (king). Here, though, the new king “arose over Egypt”. The semantic valence of that word, “arose” (vayakom/ויָקָם), is very much darker, especially when joined with the preposition “over” (‘al/עַל). The Torah’s signature story of wicked and self-aggrandizing insurrection tells that Korah, along with Datan and Aviram and 250 other big-shots, “arose” (vayakom/ויָקָם) before Moshe (Bemidbar/Numbers 16:1-2). Later in the Bible, Job says, “The murderer arises (yakum/יָקוּם) in the evening to kill the poor and needy” (Job 24:14). The psalmist pleads in poetic desperation, “Do not turn me over to the clutches of my tormentors, for false witnesses and unjust accusers have arisen “kamu/קָמוּ” against me (Psalms 27:12). Finally, a legal passage compares a rape case to “as a man arises (yakum/יָקוּם) over (‘al/עַל) his neighbor and murders them (Deuteronomy/Devarim 22:26). The terminology of this new king’s coronation signals violent, hostile assumption of power: an invasion or a coup. In light of these echoes, the Spanish Bible commentator Avraham Ibn ‘Ezra, (1089-c.1167) says of this new king in Egypt, “The explanation is like the plain meaning without addition: that he was not from the seed of the dynastic kingship”, adding another Biblical verse using that same root to refer to a feared coup attempt (I Sh’muel 22:8). All leaders face threats from rivals, but a new leader who is discontinuous with the nation’s political tradition and legacy is likely to face additional challenges asserting legitimacy in the eyes of the people: the new king arose over Egypt; presumably many Egyptians saw him as illegitimate or hostile.

II. Asserting His Authority By Rallying the Country around a New Enemy

The first thing the new king did was speak to the people: “And he said to his people, ‘Look, the people of the children of Israel is more numerous and vast than we. Come, let us outsmart it, lest it multiply; and then, should war occur, even join our enemies and fight against us and go up from the land.’” Since this transpires in two verses, it’s easy to think of it as a quick, one-time statement, but let’s think realistically. How did this king say something to his people? Did he tweet? Did he summon the entire Egyptian population to a one-time, mass gathering, give a two-sentence speech, and send everyone home? This had to be a sustained, public relations, messaging campaign over time. The new king utilized all the media available, over time, to communicate a new message to the people — emphasizing his people, to cover-up his own insecure, questionable place at the helm.

One key component of the king’s message is that the children of Israel — remember, Israel was just a person’s name, the patriarch Jacob’s alter ego — are now a people or a nation, an ‘am/עַם. Up until now, they were plural people, descendants of Cana‘nite famine refugees, who had become Egyptians. The new king brands them a nation, referring to them in the collective singular: the Jewish people is born. 

The Pesach Haggadah draws our attention to the significance of this campaign of defamation in its running commentary of the Torah’s most concise retelling of our mythic history, Devarim/Deuteronomy chapter 26, the “My father was a wandering Aramean” paragraph. That passage says, “And the Egyptians did us evil, and abused us, and set upon us hard labor (26:6). Everyone I’ve ever asked about this verse, including myself for several decades, has quite reasonably explained that “the Egyptians did us evil” must refer to either slavery or killing the Hebrew baby boys. The Haggadah’s explanation must give us pause, then:

“‘And the Egyptians did us evil’ – as it is stated (Sh’mot/Exodus 1:10), “‘Come, let us outsmart it, lest it multiply; and then, should war occur, actually join our enemies and fight against us and go up from the land.’” Why would the Haggadah say this? Why does the Haggadah say that the paradigmatic example of evil done to us by the Egyptians was mere words? 

The Netziv (Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, 1816-1893, Russia) points our attention to a subtle, but very specific word choice in the Torah that the Haggadah is picking up on. Although many translations of Deut. 26:6 say “And the Egyptians did evil unto us”, a close reading of the Hebrew does not support that translation. To say “to us”, the Hebrew would need to say “vayarei‘u lanu/וַיָּרֵעוּ לָנוּ”, a phrase we find in the Torah, when Moshe unsuccessfully petitions the King of Edom to allow the Israelites safe passage, saying, “‘You know all the travail that has found us; 15 how our ancestors went down into Egypt, and we lived in Egypt many days; and the Egyptians did evil unto us, and to our ancestors” (Bemidbar/Numbers 20:14-15). Here, though, in Devarim 26, the Hebrew says, “vayarei‘u otanu/וַיָּרֵעוּ אֹתָנוּ”, using the word et/את, which always introduces a direct object. This would have to mean not that they did evil to us, but that they evil’ed us: they made us out to be evil, hence, my translation, “they did us evil”. As the Netziv puts it, “they made us out to be evil and ingrates, until they suspected us and said, ‘lest it multiply…and join our enemies…’” (Netziv’s Commentary to the Haggadah, Imrei Shefer). The Haggadah tells us an urgent message: words matter. Defamation matters. The brutal slavery and the killing of babies could not have happened without a prior defamation campaign. Hitler of 1944 was impossible without Hitler of 1930. An armed invasion of Congress is continuous with birtherism. When we tell the story of slavery in Egypt, the story must start with the new king’s media campaign to defame the descendants of Israel, turning the opinion of the Egyptian masses against them, creating a new, mythic Egyptian identity built off its opposition to the newly fabricated nation of Israelites. 

Kings are kings, but they always need the backing of the people. The Ramban (1194-1270, Spain) explains why the new king didn’t just go ahead and massacre the Hebrews: “this would have constituted rank treason to persecute without cause a people that had come to the land at the bidding of his royal predecessor. Moreover the people of the land would not have allowed the king to commit this violence, since he had to consult them…” (comment to Sh’mot 1:10). Moreover, the king’s goal was not the elimination of the Hebrews, but the exploitation of the Hebrews to turn his non-loyal, skeptical subjects, into a strong unified force behind him, to make himself great by making the people identify him with Egypt and a new nationalist identity around him. He starts with public defamation, continues with a labor boondoggle to mess with family structures, then tries to buy off the midwives to secretly kill babies, so that his hands will be clean, and only then does he take the gloves off and issue a national edict of baby-killing, in which all Egyptians are deputized as enforcers. It took a long time, a lot of steps that could have been interrupted, some of which were interrupted by heroic resisters, such as the midwives

III.  Finding an Enemy: What Bothered the New King?

What bothered the king was Hebrew fertility: “The people of the children of Israel is more numerous and vast than we”, or perhaps, as Nehama Leibowitz prefers, “too numerous and vast for us”. As we see throughout history, stigmatized and scapegoated people are often framed as sexually deviant, promiscuous, or unnatural, and the oppressor, in turn, oppresses them through control of their sexuality. Let’s be clear, though: sexual oppression was not a byproduct of economic slavery for the Hebrews; economic slavery was a byproduct of sexual oppression, a way to justify it. “So they set forced labor masters over them so as to abuse them with their burdens” (1:11). The word “abuse them” (‘anoto/עַנֹּתוֹ) is used in numerous places in the Torah to refer to encroachment on body autonomy, through forced or forcibly denied sex, or through food. (For example, see Genesis 16:6-11, 31:50, 34:1, 41:52; Leviticus 23:26; Deuteronomy 5:1-3.) The Haggadah names this in its interpretation of this root in Deut. 26:7, “YHWH saw our abuse (‘onyenu/עָנְיֵנוּ): “this refers to the forced disruption of sexual relations”. The Torah highlights this stigmatized disgust with Israelite fertility even in the narrator’s introduction to the book, just before the new king is introduced. The Israelites were not just “fruitful and multiplied”, which would echo God’s vision for humanity in Genesis 1, but they “were fruitful, and swarmed, and multiplied, and became very, very vast, and the land was filled with them” (1:7). They are dehumanized, seen as swarming insects or reptiles, a plague upon the land, foreshadowing the several plagues of vermind and reptiles through which the Egyptians will later be punished for their campaign of dehumanization. Sexual abuse, in different forms, pervades this story, and the Rabbis will see numerous manifestations of liberation, human and Divine, playing out through human sexuality.

From the distance of history, profound oppression can seem like it just happened. The story of the Shoah is told through Auschwitz and Treblinka. The story of American enslavement of Africans is told through the brutal cotton plantations of the 1800s. The story of planetary collapse can be told through massive forest fires and droughts. Our parasha reflects that by narrating our ancestors’ descent into slavery so quickly, but it also inscribes hints inviting us to resist that kind of retelling, to stop and unpack all the building blocks of tyranny, all the steps that moderates would gaslight a good reader into thinking are insignificant: the new king’s just blowing smoke; stop exaggerating about everything. The Torah tells us: You’re not exaggerating. These are the most important things to name.

Shabbat shalom. 

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