By Elie Pollack
(Continued from last week)
The events of the famine slowly receded from people’s memories into history. Simultaneously, the ever-expanding Jewish ghetto in Goshen became less rigid, with Jews moving out to other parts of the country. Socialization and intermingling became more common, and Jews started to go to bars and casinos6 with the Egyptians. They were no longer seen as a moral elite; when people are viewed as “pals,” the viewer assumes that they possess the same moral failings.
As the generation of the famine died out, the discontent against the government rose. The new generation did not appreciate their inability to own property and their servile status to Pharaoh.7 They came to distrust the upper class, and to believe that their subjugation was an injustice.
Riding this wave of discontent, the revisionist historians played a game of connect-the-dots and came to their own picture. Yosef was seen as an opportunist who had admittedly saved the country with his foresight, but who had used this national calamity as a means to enrich himself, his family, and the royal elite, at the public’s expense. The “facts” about how Yosef had supported his family for free, but “forcibly” bought off the rest of Egypt bolstered their conclusions.
Accordingly, “A new king arose upon Egypt who did not know Yosef” (Sh’mos 1:8) might mean he did not know the true character of Yosef. Yosef’s exemplary conduct and the justice of his actions had been forgotten. Such things do not go into the history books, unlike laws, transactions, and national catastrophes.8 This, coupled with the fact that the Egyptian people no longer viewed the Jews as moral elites, made it impossible for the populace to believe those who still accepted the testimony of the dead generation of “old-timers” who had known the truth,9 that it was Egypt’s own national moral failings that had forced these “side-effects” upon them. The discontent against the monarchy and “its Jews” grew, finally resulting in revolution.
If our understanding is correct, then we can understand Rashi’s comment tracing the inception of the subjugation in Egypt back to Yaakov’s death in the following manner. It appears that Yaakov had earned the respect of the gentile world around him to an astonishing degree. The Torah records that the Egyptian nation cried for 70 days!10 Even after this period had elapsed, and Yaakov’s body was taken to its final resting place in Cana’an, the Egyptian delegation mourned so intensely that the Canaanite observers named the locality “Evel Mitzrayim, The Mourning of Egypt,” in awe of this event (Bereishis 50:11).
Accordingly, we can posit that as long as Yaakov was alive, even the lowest member of the Egyptian underworld admired and respected his family. At the same time, he served as a powerful force giving instructions to all of his children and grandchildren about how to deal—and not deal—with the outside world.
But after Yaakov died, all of that ceased to be. There were no public moves made against the Jews. Yosef’s forces would have crushed any such activity. But behind closed doors, late at night, anti-Jewish activity began. Somebody started printing up “The Protocols Of The Elders Of Goshen.” Perhaps some shuls were the subject of smear-painting by unidentified persons. At this point, it was merely rogue elements, but the resentment which eventually snowballed into slavery and subjugation was already present.
While Yosef was surely more than capable of keeping such activity in check, he could not remove it. At the same time, neither he nor any of his brothers was viewed as an all-encompassing rabbinical overseer whose guidance was absolutely binding on the entire community, who might have ensured that its uniform distinctiveness would remain unequivocal; accordingly, the respect that the community had commanded could begin to erode.
This pattern has recurred throughout Jewish history. For example, medieval Europe lacked a strong unified judicial system, which made it crippled with regard to commerce. Those with capital were hesitant to lend to or invest in others. They had good reason to fear the losses that would occur if the other party disappeared with the goods in an area where he was on good terms with the local authorities, or where the local laws would place the burden of proof strongly against them.
These problems could have caused Europe much more economic suffering had they not been transcended by the Jews, who were unified by their adherence to the Talmudic legal system and by their trust in the integrity of the rabbinical infrastructure, which enforced Jewish law wherever a Jewish community existed. It was due to this anomaly that Europe was able to be supplied with important goods, including armaments during times of war, other more basic staples during times of peace, and the funds that are integral for both.
This brought some degree of financial success to the Jews involved and, unfortunately, this aroused envy from many of their gentile counterparts, who could not supply goods with the ease and effectiveness of the Jews. It was possible for uninformed people to see the Jews succeeding where their own efforts had failed, and come to the conclusion that the Jews had somehow “cheated,” using any technique from bribery to sorcery. Not realizing that their problems were largely self-inflicted, they came to hate and persecute those whose presence actually caused them much good.
This phenomenon is alive and well today. It manifests itself in the form of people who object to the Israeli presence on lands that were owned by Arabs prior to 1948. In some cases, these “occupiers” are labeled as criminals for their “ruthless strong-arming” of property from these unfortunate, helpless victims.
The Arabs started the war in 1948 by trying to take land which had been under Turkish and then British control, and had not been “theirs” in any national legal manner. They also forcibly expelled hundreds of thousands of non-combatant Jewish civilians from their homes throughout Arab lands, which should have created a serious refugee issue. The Arab armies lost the war and, as a result, the territory called Palestine became a Jewish state. A comparable number of Arabs who had fled their homes to avoid the crossfires of the war also became displaced.
In theory, at least two solutions could have been implemented which could have been deemed “fair.” A. The Arabs could have been accepted into the Arab states and the Jews could have been accepted by the Jewish state. B. All the refugees could have been allowed back to their own homes, where they had lived and owned property for ages. However, the Arabs refused to acknowledge responsibility for either the war or the groups of stateless people created in its wake.
As a result, the Jewish state was left with a choice. Either it could accept the Jewish refugees, and hope that the Arabs could figure out what to do with their own refugees, or it could reaccept the Arabs who had lived there previously. This was not really a choice at all. As unfortunate as the plight of the Arab refugees has been, the condition of Jewish refugees in the post-1948 Arab world would have been exponentially more horrific. Would they even have survived to complain about being stuck in camps for three generations?
Additionally, the Jewish state had been created specifically due to the global (post-Holocaust) recognition of the need for a place to absorb Jewish refugees, should another political upheaval create an unwieldy number of stateless Jews. The Jewish state took in thousands of expelled Jews, and hoped the Arabs could come up with a solution for their own brethren. They never did.
But now, nearly 70 years later, as those who experienced the realities of 1948 have almost all passed on, it has become possible for a new group of students and “scholars” to assume that since there had been Arabs there before who now cannot return to this territory, it must be that the heartless Israeli “occupiers” are bandits who have no qualms about stripping an entire people of their most elementary possessions and living off of them . . . as their victims languish with little prospect of ever receiving a home.
By playing the game of connect-the-dots, they construct a picture which fails to recognize the root of the problem as the Arab nations’ irresponsibility and apathy toward their own brothers. At times, this philosophy can be taken to such ends as to justify bombings and violence that deliberately target children as a legitimate, desperate act of defense by a people with no other recourse to protect their property rights from the next generation of invaders who threaten it.
In so doing, they follow the lead of Pharaoh, who was unwilling and unable to see his country’s problems as being a result of its own shortcomings and, in turn, instigated this kind of “freedom-fighting” against newborn infants, as it is written, “if it is a son you shall kill it,” (Sh’mos 1:16) and “any son who is born, you shall throw it into the Nile.”11
May all of us, and our children, be protected from the espousers of these historiographies with all of their implications, and may this be the last iteration in the terrible cycle of golus. v
Ellie Pollack is a rabbinical student in Torah V’daas. He encourages feedback on this piece, and may be contacted at commentstoElie@yahoo.com.
6. Yalkut Shimoni in the opening section in Sh’mos (commenting on Sh’mos 1:7, “The Earth was full of them”) interprets, “the theaters and circuses were full of them.”
7. At the very least, they resented these strictures being imposed on them and not on the Jews, and wished that the Jews would be subjugated to the crown as well. See Bechor Shor to Sh’mos 1:11.
8. See, for instance, the comment of Sforno to Sh’mos 1:8 who also assumes that is impossible to say that Yosef’s legal accomplishments in restructuring the country were forgotten. Nevertheless, our interpretation is probably not in exact accord with his understanding.
9. Sh’mos 1:6 says, “Yosef, his brothers, and that entire generation died.” Ibn Ezra understands that the phrase “that entire generation” refers to the Egyptians who had known Yosef and that this verse is an introduction to the rise of the “New Pharaoh who did not know Yosef” in 1:8.
10. Bereishis 50:3. Rashi appears to interpret the crying as merely 30 days, yet even this is still incredible. Also see Sifsei Chachamim. By way of comparison, even Moshe (Devarim 34:8) and Aharon (Bamidbar 20:29) were cried over (i.e. mourned) for only 30 days by their own people.
11. Sh’mos 1:22. It may be argued that they are even worse than Pharaoh since “Pharaoh only decreed [death] upon the males . . .” (Hagadah Shel Pesach)