Fear and Loathing in Ancient Egypt

On Sunday I attended Nassau County’s March and Rally against Antisemitism, where somewhere around 2,000 people of all faiths gathered to show support for the Jewish community in the wake of several recent hate crimes, and also to affirm that hate has no place here. My Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom chapter was joined by other chapters to show that by getting to know each other, Jewish and Muslim women can become friends.

As I began to look at this week’s Torah reading, Shemot (Exodus in Latin), I realized how quickly fear can turn into hate, and how quickly hateful actions can escalate. The book and the parashah begin by telling us the names (Shemot) of Jacob’s sons who had settled in Egypt. It notes that Joseph and his brothers had all died, and “A new king arose over Egypt who didn’t know (of) Joseph.” Apparently, the story of how Joseph had saved the country from famine had been lost over the ages.

This new Pharaoh is concerned that because the Israelites are so numerous, they might side with Egypt’s enemies in case of a war. And that might have been a valid concern, but the choice of the Hebrew word va-yishr’tzu, which means “to swarm,” has negative connotations, suggesting that the Israelites–descended from immigrants–would take over, and that may have been even more of a motivating factor.

We tell the story every Passover; Avadim hayinu b’Mitzrayim, “We were slaves in the land of Egypt…” and ultimately, God redeemed us. The Israelites were forced to build store cities for Pharaoh and although they were oppressed and treated poorly, they continued to increase.

In the blink of an eye, between verses 15 and 16, Pharaoh orders the midwives Shifra and Puah to kill all of the Israelite boy babies. What’s rather comical is that Pharaoh gives them instructions for telling the difference. As the kids say, “Seriously?” And when that doesn’t happen, he orders all-not just Israelite baby boys–to be thrown in the Nile. All, Israelite and Egyptian.

Pharaoh’s brain has been poisoned by fear, and he retaliates in a way that not only hurts the “other,” but his own people as well. His judgment has been clouded. The text never tells us if the baby boys are ever actually thrown in the Nile, or how the people responded. I’d like to think that the Egyptian and Israelite women got together and create some sort of secret hiding place, or some other way to save their sons.

The leap from fear to hate to oppression and persecution, and ultimately potential loss of life, can happen quickly, or take years, but it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It happens when not enough people protest injustice, when we don’t speak up because it’s “someone else” being oppressed, and when we forget that, as Elie Wiesel z”l said, “The opposite of hate isn’t love, it’s indifference.”

Rather than dividing the people, as Pharaoh did, may we be blessed to see beyond our differences to see God’s face in each person we encounter.


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