For the week ending 21 December 2013 / 18 Tevet 5774

Parshat Shmot

by Rabbi Pinchas Kasnett
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In the beginning of this Parsha, Pharaoh says to his people “…behold the people, the children of Israel are more numerous and stronger than we. Come, let us outsmart it lest it become numerous and it may be that if a war will occur, it too may join our enemies and wage war against us and go up from the land.”

Abarbanel is puzzled by Pharaoh’s concerns. First of all, the children of Israel were clearly not more numerous than the Egyptians. Even if they were more numerous, it makes no sense for him to say, “…lest it become numerous.” Secondly, if he was concerned about the Jews’ leaving, what difference does it make whether it is peacetime or wartime? Finally, if he was concerned about the Jews’ joining with the enemy, he should have been concerned that they would conquer Egypt, not that they would leave.

Abarbanel responds that the expression in the verse, “…more numerous and stronger than we” refers not to their numbers but to their strength, which he recognized came directly from G-d’s Divine Providence. It is in the following verse, in regard to wartime, that Pharaoh is concerned about their numbers. To explain this concern, Abarbanel posits that the Egyptians viewed the Jews as their valued property that they wanted to retain, rather than an alien presence that they wanted to get rid of. During peacetime they would have no opportunity to leave Egypt, regardless of their numbers. Pharaoh could easily keep them under control. However, in a time of war an increased Jewish population could join with the foreign invaders to overcome the Egyptians and flee the country. Pharaoh at this point did not see the Jewish population as usurpers or a physical threat to Egyptian hegemony. He was actually worried about the opposite possibility: that he could lose a segment of his population that was making an invaluable contribution to the country.

Pharaoh’s solution to this possible problem was to totally oppress them and take away their freedom with a methodical, step-by-step process that started with an increased tax burden, and progressed to back-breaking enslavement. His goal was to arrest their population increase. However, G-d’s direct intervention resulted in the exact opposite: the more they were afflicted the greater were their numbers. Additionally, they began to spread out throughout the country. Now the Egyptians’ concern shifted dramatically. They were no longer worried about the future possibility that the Jews would assist an enemy invasion. Rather, they had become a present nuisance, taking food and fish from Egyptian fields and the Nile River.

Pharaoh then embarked on history’s first attempt to find the “Final Solution to the Jewish Problem.” His decision to limit the genocide to the killing of male infants only was based on his calculation that Jewish girls could be much more easily controlled and assimilated into Egyptian society and would pose no military threat if Egypt were invaded.

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