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Learning A Lesson from Pharoah
By Larry Domnitch
The book of Exodus (1:13) states, "The Egyptians enslaved the Israelites with cruel harshness" How did the Israelites who lived in a climate of relative tolerance within Egypt suddenly become slaves to their Egyptian hosts?
In Exodus 1:9, Pharaoh notes with alarm the increasing numbers of Israelites. "Behold the Israelites are more numerous and stronger than we." He sought a solution to what he perceived as Egypt's Jewish Problem; to impose slavery. However, it would not be logistically easy to force an entire nation into servitude. Not only were they numerous, but many were spread out over the entire country. (See Exodus 1:5) Pharaoh understood that it would be very difficult to simply pursue and place chains upon the Israelites. They could flee or resist, making the task extremely difficult. He sought a different approach.
Pharaoh stated, "Come let us outsmart them, lest they become numerous and join with our enemies, wage war against us and flee the land." (Exodus 1:10) Pharaoh outwitted the Israelites by ensnaring them into a trap. He appealed to their sense of patriotism. According to the Talmud (Sota 11a), he summoned the Israelites and bid them to do assist him. He took a basket then a rake and started to make mortar for bricks. Whoever saw the king followed suit, and immediately all the Israelites zealously set about making bricks. As the day progressed and the evening was approaching, the Pharaoh suddenly set taskmasters over them and commanded them to count the bricks. Then he ordered them to produce the same quota every day.
Pharaoh surmised that the way to entrap the Israelites was to play upon their desire for acceptance. They had been targeted and maligned in a recent propaganda campaign initiated against them by the Pharaoh who claimed that the Jews were too powerful, and were going to join their enemies and leave the land. (See Exodus 1:9, 10) Pharaoh needed a pretext for the enslavement of those who were the descendants of the beloved Joseph whose memory was still revered in Egypt. This could be their chance to debunk the propaganda and charges of disloyalty.
The Talmudic sage Rabbi Elazar states that the biblical word used in reference to the bitter persecution of the Israelites 'B'Farech', (Exodus 1:13) can also be read as B'feh Rach, meaning a 'soft approach,' implying the kind of tact in which the cunning Egyptian king lured the Israelites. It was the 'soft approach' that lured the Israelites.
In history, this has often been the case. To cite just a few examples; it was Achashverosh who invited the Jews of Shushan to his feast, and eventually became a partner to Haman's diabolical plans. The Roman Emperor Hadrian initially promised to rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem, but eventually persecuted the Jews and provoked the Bar Kochba revolt. The King of Portugal, Manuel initially accepted Jews fleeing neighboring Spain following the expulsion of 1492, only to order their expulsion five years later, along with the eventual imposition of an inquisition.
French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte broke down ghetto walls and offered Jews emancipation, in order to assimilate them. Soviet revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin initially spoke of equality but Russian Jews actually got a new nightmare, that of Soviet anti-Semitism. In the 1920's, Wiemar Germany offered democracy, but in the long run provided fertile ground for false hopes in pre-Nazi Germany. The Israelite existence in Egypt is a paradigm for the history of the Jews.
Sometimes, the greatest dangers to the Jews are not those who brandish swords, but those who lure the Jews into a false sense of security. When one knows from where the enemy is coming, one can be alert to the dangers and prepare.
The lesson past Pharaohs are as pertinent in our time as they were in ancient Egypt.
from the April Passover 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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