The opening of the book of Exodus details the enslavement of the Israelites by a pharaoh who “did not know of Joseph” (Exod. 1:8). Having become a prolific minority living among an Egyptian majority, Israelites—and their fertility—raised fears in pharaoh and his countrymen. Yet, counter to our perception of sudden slavery and brutality, the opening of Parashat Shemot gives us a much more nuanced sense of a people gradually transformed from freemen to servants. Pharaoh first accuses the Israelites of becoming too numerous, then sets fiscal oppressors (sarei misim) over them, and only after that does he choreograph a policy of murdering male Israelite infants. Each pharaonic gesture represents the increased embitterment of Israelite lives. How may we better understand this subtle descent to enslavement?
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains:
The first taxes (misim) they had to pay as citizens are mentioned in Exodus 1:14. The Israelites still retained their rights, but had to pay for their right to protection by special levy of a labor-tax . . . After that, they were degraded to slaves: creatures without any right of appeal or redress for any wrongs committed against them. It no longer says that “Pharaoh oppressed them” but states that the “Egyptians oppressed them.” In other words, the people received the right to treat them as slaves. Then the third degree was added, that the Egyptians “embittered” their lives . . . The root and beginning of this indescribable maltreatment was strangeness (gerut), the supposed lack of rights as a foreigner. That is why the laws of Torah concerning the rights of foreigners offer the profoundest contrast to all other national laws up to this very day . . . The degree of justice in a land is measured not so much by the rights accorded to the native-born inhabitants, to the rich, or people who have representatives looking after their interests, but by what justice is meted out to the completely unprotected “stranger.” (Hirsch, Commentary on the Torah: Exodus, 9)Rabbi Hirsch (who lived in 19th-century Germany) is profoundly thoughtful and sensitive in tracing the intensifying oppression of the Israelites. First, Pharaoh singles them out. Once they have become separate and apart from the majority, the Israelites are oppressed through economic means. Fiscal burden then leads to a collective unleashing of degradation. And finally, the atmosphere of the country is poisoned as the Egyptians successfully participate in the process of embittering the lives of the strangers in their midst. What began as the accusation of one misguided pharaoh (Exod. 1:9) transforms into the hateful, oppressive behavior of the many (Exod. 1:13). Even more importantly, Hirsch delivers a powerful message of Torah and of the Jewish people throughout the ages. It is this experience of “otherness” that has led to our heightened sensitivity toward the “stranger” in our own midst. As Jews in the Diaspora and in Israel, we must never forget the historical lesson of Egypt rooted in this week’s parashah. May we all internalize Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s teaching: “The degree of justice in a land is measured . . . by what justice is meted out to the completely unprotected ‘stranger.’”