Are the Egyptians the New Jews?

The following article is adapted from Rabbi Pear’s Shabbat HaGadol Sermon: “Are the Egyptians the New Jews? A Jewish Response to the Arab Revolts.”

I recently became a global citizen.  In search of an affordable graphic artist to design a new logo for Shir Hadash I came across a website that ‘puts out to bid’ various projects to freelancers throughout the world.  The client – that’s me – gets to view all these bids and then decide on the best one.  To my surprise, the project I offered – design a new logo for a Israeli based Jewish religious institution – garnered tremendous response.  Two things in particular surprised me.  First, the bids were incredibly low.  There were professionals in India, individuals with college degrees, some with second degrees even, willing to work for me ‘until I was satisfied’ for about $25.  Heck, in Israel, I can’t even get someone to work for me ‘until I’m almost not totally unsatisfied’ for double that amount.
The second thing that surprised me was the tremendous diversity of the respondents.  Yes, I received many responses from India, but also from Pakistan, and Latvia, and Estonia, and Italy, and Mexico and England (the most expensive of course) and many, many other places … including Egypt!  This last respondent was the most fascinating.  He saw that I’m Israeli (in fact, next to my name the website placed a large Israeli flag); he saw that I’m Jewish and he saw that I was asking to have work done for a Synagogue among other things.  Did he flinch? Not at all.  “Shalom” he wrote me.  “I’m not sure you’d be willing to hire an Egyptian, but if you would, I promise I’d do a great job.  I’d love to work for you!”
I was moved.  I had always harbored bad feelings towards Egypt, partly because of that whole slavery thing, and partly for that whole waging war against nascent Israel thing.  Sure there was now peace, but it was most certainly a cold peace at best.  [I think I also have a problem with Egypt partly because of a visit I made there once when I was in college.  After a day of touring I fell asleep in my hotel room, while my two roommates decided to ‘go out’ to check out the Egyptian nightlife.  At around three in the morning I was awakened by a Rooster dancing on my head and pecking my nose.  Apparently my friends bought said rooster during their night out and thought it would be hilarious to introduce him to me while I was deep in sleep.]
So yes, I have always had a problem with Egypt.  But then I receive this wonderfully uplifting note from a total stranger.  Apparently the forces of globalization have some very positive effects.   Which got me thinking … Maybe all those times I had a problem with Egypt, it wasn’t really with Egypt per se, but rather the leaders of Egypt.  Maybe the average person wasn’t so bad after all.  Maybe, in fact, behind all the rhetoric and politics, maybe behind all the headlines and shrill protesting and Israeli flag burning, maybe, just maybe, there were millions of everyday Egyptians ready to say ‘Shalom’ to total Israeli strangers.
And that got me thinking about the Exodus.  What was the situation then?  Was it simply Pharoah running the show; he was a dictator after all.  Did the average Egyptian and the average Jew actually get along?  Or was the anti-Semitism introduced by Pharoah actually a national pasttime?  Did everyone get in on the whole opression thing?
***
According to the Torah, I tend to think it was the latter.  After all, we are told that every Egyptian, from the mighty Pharoah all the way down to the lowliest water carrier, suffered during the Plagues.  Everyone of them was punished … suggesting, of course, that God somehow held everyone one of them somewhat responsible.
But wasn’t it Pharoah and his taskmasters who did all the enslaving?  What role did that poor water carrier play?
According to many sources, the answer is that Pharoah, as powerful as he was, could not possibly have instituted slavery without the tacit support of the entire population.  If the people had protested, he would have had no choice but to abort his plan.  Thus, when they did not protest, their sin of omission enabled the slavery to take place.
A number of interesting proofs assert this same point.
For example, the Gemara tells us that Pharoah consulted with three people before enslaving the Jews – Bilaam, Yitro and Iyov (or Job).  Bilaam encouraged Pharoah to enslave the Jews – and was thus punished by God.  Yitro would have no part of Pharoah’s plan and ran away in protest – and was thus rewarded by God.  Job simply remained silent.  How did God react to this inaction?  According to the Gemara, not well.  Job’s silence in the face of the Jews’ impending suffering was criminal – and thus God punished him with all the suffering we are familiar with from Job’s story elsewhere.  In other words, if one has the opportunity to protest and he does not, even if his protest may not be successful, he is liable for his lack of action.  It’s almost as if he allowed the act to take place.
Another interesting source is provided by the Vilna Gaon.  He states that Pharoah, no matter how powerful a dictator he was, was nevertheless limited in his behavior by the tacit support of the average Egyptian.  If he was totally out of line, a revolt would have removed him from power.
What’s the proof of this assertion?
The Vilna Gaon points out two things.  First, that the Gemara states that Pharoah told all the midwives a secret – that if the baby’s head was up (while still in the womb) it was most probably a boy, while if it was down it was probably a girl.  Why did they need to  know that information.  Couldn’t they simply have waited until the baby was born, and then kill all the males as Pharoah commanded?  Why did Pharoah think they needed a ‘heads up’ – pardon the pun – beforehand?
His second question relates to the ‘excuse’ given by the two Jewish midwives who refused to murder the male babies.  If you remember the text, they tell Pharoah they couldn’t have killed the babies because the Jewish women give birth so fast that the boys were already born before they, the midwives, arrived.  “So what?” asks the Vilna Gaon.  How is that an excuse at all.  So you kill them after they are born.  Why does it matter that they were already born?
The Vilna Gaon answers the second question by addressing the first.  Pharoah made sure the midwives knew how to determine the sex of the baby in utero because he knew that if they waited until they were born, the mothers – and others – would protest the murder.  By murdering them before they actually left the womb, the mothers didn’t even know their children were being murdered; they simply thought it was a miscarriage.  In this way, Pharoah did not appear overtly evil – at least in the eyes of his own people.  For if they had actually known about his plan, they most assuredly would have protested.  And it is for this reason that the midwives excuse made sense.  Yes, they could have technically killed the babies after they were born, but if they did so, the gig was up; people would know Pharoah’s true intentions and perhaps begin to revolt against him.  We learn from this yet again the power of the seemingly powerless.  If they had protested, Pharoah could not have succeeded with his plans.
And thus, according to these above sources, as well as others, even the lowly Egyptians were guilty because they allowed Pharoah to ‘get away’ with murder.
***
But not everyone agrees with this assertion.  The Ramban, for example, argues that the Egyptians didn’t know about Pharoah’s plans at all.  He, of course, can draw some support for this assertion from the same Vilna Gaon insight quoted above.  Pharoah obviously was trying to deceive the people so they weren’t aware of his plans.  If that’s the case, then, they can’t be held responsible for not protesting.  After all, they can’t protest what they can’t see.
… which raises an even greater question than the one we began with.
Recall, for a moment, how we started this discussion.  The Torah itself  tells us that all the Egyptians are punished.  Why?  According to most sources, because they all shared some type of culpability.  The one angle we explored was their lack of protest (there are others, but that’s for another time).  Fine.  That makes sense.
But now the Ramban comes along and suggests that perhaps the Egyptians didn’t know what was going on, and therefore couldn’t protest — and therefore also could not be held liable for not protesting.  Which seems to suggest a certain degree of innocence.
But that can’t be.  The Torah has already told explicitly they are punished!
So does that mean the Ramban is wrong?
Perhaps not.  Perhaps there is something else the Egyptians did that made them liable for punishment.  But if not their outright participation in enslaving the Jews, and if not their tacit support by not protesting, then what?
***
Let us digress for one moment and ask the following question: Who is the key figure in the Hagada that seems to be totally absent from all discussion on Seder night?
My answer: Joseph.
Joseph, after all, is the reason the Jews are in Egypt in the first place.  If he never went down there, and if he never succeeded in becoming the vice-premier, it is doubtful the brothers would have followed him down, and even less so that they would have stayed.
So yes, I think Joseph plays a significant role in the whole story.  And so do the Sages, though not in the obvious way you might expect.  For example, one ritual enacted by the Sages is dipping the Karpas into salt water.  Did you know that some have the custom of dipping it in Charoset because it’s usually reddish (due to the red wine in it), and this reminds them of when the brothers dipped Joseph’s coat of many colors into the blood of an animal in order to show it to their father and claim that Joseph must have been killed?  Or did you know that the world Karpas, according to Rashi, does not mean simply ‘green vegetable’ – like parsely or celery – but rather colorful coat – i.e., Joseph’s coat?
And another thing?  Why do we tell the story of the four brothers?  Some suggest it’s connected to Joseph.  After all, what’s the reason Joseph was sold into slavery?  Because his brothers hated him.  And why did they hate him?  Because their father Jacob favored him at their expense.  Perhaps, suggests some commentators, the reason why the story of the four brothers is included in the Hagada is to teach us that a parent must learn how to relate and educate each of his or her children in whatever way they need educating.
And here’s the clincher to prove that despite his apparent absence, Joseph IS actually a major part of the seder.  We drinkg 4 cups of wine.  Why?  According to the Babylonian Talmud the answer is because the Torah uses four different terms to describe the redemptive process of God taking us out of Egypt.  OK, sounds good to me.
But not to the Jerusalem Talmud.  It offers an entirely different explanation: We drink 4 cups of wine because in the dream of the Wine Steward – the dream that Joseph interprets and is the cause of his eventual liberation from prison – in this dream there are four times the word ‘cup’ is mentioned.
So there you have it.  Joseph is a part of the seder after all.
***
But what does that mean?
To understand its meaning, we have to realize that Joseph is but one model of Jewish leadership.  Throughout our history, there is a second model as well – and that is Yehuda.
What is the difference between these two leaders?  Joseph represents the Universal, the desire to take Jewish values and spread them throughout the world, even if at times that jeopardizes the uniquenss of the Jewish way along the way.  Yehuda, in contrast, is uncompromisingly parochial.  First and foremost he represents the need to strengthen our Jewish identity, our commitment to our uniqueness, and our devotion to one another – even if that comes at the expense of our other mission to reach out to the rest of the world.
We have both models of leaders because, in truth, we need both models of leadership.  It is irrelevant to be able to speak to the world if what we have to say is not particularly meaningful; and thus we need Yehuda’s insistence on understanding the unique Jewish message.  On the other hand, what good is it to survive as Jews and celebrate Judaism if we are unable to spread that message in such a way as to transform the world?
Perhaps the Sages ‘slipped’ Joseph into the Hagada to remind us of this need to synthesize both leadership styles.  Especially on Passover.  After all, one could be forgiven for abandoning the world at such a time.  We were enslaved.  We were murdered.  We were almost destroyed.  “Please,” I hear myself saying, “Give me a break.  You want me to care about the rest of the world right now.  It’s impossible.”  And yet, while one can be forgiven for turning inward when contemplating the Passover experience, the Sages remind us that this is not ideal.  We must also, even at this difficult time, remember the message of Joseph.  That the Jewish story is also meant to play a role in the lives of the whole world.  We dare not ignore others.
***
OK, now I believe we can return to answer the question on the Ramban.  Recall the problem: The Ramban said average Egyptians were not guilty of enslaving the Jews, but the Torah tells us they are punished nevertheless; so what was their sin?
Perhaps – and here I am summoning the Joseph within me – their sin had nothing to do with their relationship with the Jewish people.   Perhaps their sin was something not against Jews but against themselves.
Consider this.  The message of the exodus is not simply that the Jews needed to be free, but also that the entire world needs to be free.  That only with freedom can a person – any person – fulfill their ultimate potential and ultimate service to God.  Moreover, it is also a message of God as liberator, as lover of freedom, and of man created in God’s image, and thus also a lover of freedom.
Perhaps the sin of the average Egyptian is not that he enslaved others but that he allowed himself to become enslaved.  That he allowed a dictator to rule over him, to establish a caste society in which no movement, no moral freedom and no independence was permitted.  That he allowed himself to remove all possibility of serving the one True God because he refused to even attempt to throw off the shackles of one so-called god-dictator.
… and of course, once this Egyptian gave up all hope for his own freedom, the absolute enslavement of another became inevitable.
***
Let us now take this lesson and apply it to the various popular revolts spreading throughout the Arab world.  As a Jew and and Israeli, yes, I am a little concerned about what might follow.  Nothing is guaranteed, and yes, it is quite possible that extremists will replace the old regimes, who may have been corrupt, dictatorial and oppressive, but also stable and something Israel knew how to deal with.  Yes, that is all possible.
But so too is something very different.  Maybe, just maybe, the decision by millions to throw off the shackles of their oppression, and to finally insist on their own freedom, maybe this is a sign of good things to come.  Certainly they are not doing this for our sake.  But that doesn’t matter.  For far too long they weren’t even prepared to do it for their sake.  This change in attitude portends well for their societies and ultimately for the world as a whole.  No, everything will not be punky dory by tomorrow.  And yes, there might be some extremists that take over in the interim.  But if the average person continues to insist on his freedom, continues to raise his voice in protest every time someone rises to usurp his liberated status, well, then, in the long run not only will his society benefit but so too will all of ours.
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