Hard to Liberate and Hard to Liberate Oneself
It seems to me that the terms for slavery and for freedom are central motives in the book of Shemot (Exodus); they are described in the parshiyot, Shemot, Vaera and Bo, during the history of the Children of Israel while they were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.
In the parsha Mishpatim the laws of the Hebrew slave and maidservant are delineated, as well. In addition, in many places in the Torah, we are told in different ways: “And you shall remember that you were slaves in Egypt,” among others, when the Torah warns us many times not to deceive the stranger.
We can say, therefore, that the Torah deals with the subject of slavery and freeing the slave on a narrative level; while we were slaves in Egypt is our founding narrative, and also on a normative-halachic and value level, in parshat Mishpatim and in the continuation.
When we observe the unfolding of events from the beginning of parshat Shemot, we can see several verses that describe the transformation of the status of the Israelites in Egypt.
We read at the end of the book of Breishit: So Joseph settled his father and his brothers, giving them holdings in the choicest part of the land of Egypt, in the region of Ramses, as Pharaoh has commanded. (Genesis 47:11)
As opposed to the “old” Pharaoh who was grateful to Joseph, a new king arose “who did not know Joseph,” and this is the language of the text:
Joseph died, and all his brothers, and all that generation. But the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them. A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so they may not increase, otherwise in the event of a war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and arise from the ground.” So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor; and they built garrison cities for Pharaoh: Pithom and Ramses. But the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and spread out, so that the (Egyptians) came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians ruthlessly imposed upon the Israelites the various labors that they made them perform. (Shemot 1:6-13)
The Torah describes to us, briefly, what crossed the mind of the “new king’ – as is known, Rashi presents the polemic between Rav and Shmuel, possibly, according to one of the methods that is referring to the same Pharaoh who knew Joseph, but renounced all his promises after Joseph’s death, “and all that generation. “
The Netziv, in his commentary “Haemek Hadavar”, is precise in the language of the text and writes:
And a new king Arose. Shouldn’t it say a different king? Moreover, the meaning of “new” – with new opinions. He did not know Joseph, from whom the country had benefitted so much, and had so much faith in the kingdom. As a result of this, the king was wary of him. (Haemek Hadavar,ibid)
In any case, the policy of the ruling Egyptians changed; the resident aliens that were entitled to a generous political asylum up until then, multiplied. This proliferation in population bothered the new king. Possibly, he indeed felt threatened and suspected that the alien people would take over the rule, for had not the former deputy king belong to this nation!
Possibly, as other commentators thought (among them the Italian commentator R. Yitzchak Shmuel Reggio) that the new king did not really suspect that the Jews would take over the rule because he would have expelled them rather than enslave them, as Avimelech had done to Isaac. His demagogy was targeted to his own people, in order to stir up hatred toward the Children of Israel, so that they would collaborate with his wish to enslave them.
It can be asked, what was the purpose of the torture described at the beginning of parshat Shemot; was the torture meant to denigrate the nation and transform them into slaves, or, rather, is the torture here for its own sake and for the gradual elimination, among other ways, by killing all the first born sons?
In any case, when the gradual elimination did not succeed, the denigration, the exploitation, and the enslavement became the exclusive objectives. We are witness, like every national minority which is oppressed by another nation, to the existence of collaborators. Are they not the “Hebrew Hawks” (according to the Midrash: Dotam and Aviram) who tattled to Pharaoh about the killing of the Egyptian by Moses. Pharaoh’s and the Egyptian economy’s dependency on the labor of the Hebrews is illustrated also, by his unwillingness to free them. (Shemot 5:2-5) It could be to create a divide between Moses and Aaron and the people. Pharaoh decides to increase the burden of the slavery. This burden causes the loss of hope.
Parshat Vaera and Bo are characterized by frequent meetings of Moses and Aaron with Pharaoh, the encumbering of Pharaoh’s heart, and all of the plagues of Egypt. How can we understand this hardening of the heart? The commentaries that tackle the problem of Pharaoh’s free will are known; however, since “the Torah is written in human language,” it is possible to observe the mechanism of the mind that is behind the stubbornness of Pharaoh, and all the rulers who continue to subjugate other nations, in opposition to all logic.
Indeed, Pharaoh’s flippant reaction to his first meeting with Moses is understood.; in theory time is working in his favor, and if he succeeds in transforming his own peoples’ suffering and oppression into a nation that oppresses another nation by stirring up hatred of that nation - an act that ensures the continuation of his own reign, there is no reason that he should respond to the call of Moses and Aaron, in the name of a God unknown to him.
Pharaoh could deny the plague of blood, as it did not affect him directly, and because it seemed to stop after seven days, and his wizards also succeeded in turning water to blood.
It seems that the plague of frogs did affect Pharaoh personally. Here is a phenomenon that is not in his control, as the frogs were everywhere, also in his house and in his bed. The wizards of Egypt were able to produce frogs, but were not able to eliminate them successfully. We are witness here (Shemot 8:4) to a moment of fragility. The impression is given that Pharaoh is ready to understand that it is not worth his while to oppress the Hebrews. However, in verse 11, when the frogs perished as a result of Moses’ prayer, Pharaoh returns to his wicked ways and denials and continues to believe in his ability to continue oppression. The rational reader will doubt his wisdom and will find it difficult to comprehend Pharaoh’s reaction. It seems to me, though, that oppression and occupation have an addicting aspect, and every ruler who oppresses another people finds it difficult to give up the lust for dominance.
The lice were perceived by him and the wizards “as an act of God”, that is, a national disaster (Rashbam) that has no connection to the God of Israel, and, therefore, allowed the continuation of the denial.
The eruv (predatory animals) that also struck Pharaoh’s household is an additional turning point, and the Netziv learns from the precision of these words “…And would not let the people go.”(Ibid, 8:28) – “because Pharaoh became wise to the fact that he was being punished because of them, and he could not be so stern, but thought it was enough that he lifted some of their hardships…”; that is Pharaoh understood that there is a connection between his behavior towards the enslaved people that were under his rule and the plagues that he endured, but he thought that a gesture was enough to appease them, and that there was no necessity to free them.
Some of the commentators are of the opinion that with the plague of hoof and mouth disease, not all of Egypt’s cattle perished, but the majority did (Ibn Ezra) or that all the dead were from Egypt’s cattle (Hiszkuni). This hoof and mouth disease did enable the continued denial. Moreover, it seems, Pharaoh, himself, did not suffer directly.
The plague of boils did indeed strike the wizards and all of Egypt (Shemot 9:11) but it is possible that it did not strike Pharaoh himself, and, maybe as a result, it may have been difficult to keep up the denial, and maybe because of this, it was difficult to consistently deny, but with the help of God (Shemot 9:12) and against all logic, Pharaoh became more entrenched in his position.
After the plague of hail, Pharaoh’s reaction is unprecedented, “I stand guilty this time. The Lord is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong.” (Shemot 9:27) In theory, this is an insight that points, not only on Pharaoh’s will to stop the punishment, but also, that his behavior is not “justified.” This reaction is temporary and fleeting with the cessation of the hail; Maybe Pharaoh returned to his wicked ways because “the wheat and the buckwheat were not hit” (according to Rashi’s commentary and Hanetziv, based on the Midrash) or, perhaps, because of “no surrendering to terror” and concession is seen as a weakness.
The pattern of surrender and then “strengthening” continues to accompany the narrative also in Parshat Bo in different ways until the final surrender of Pharaoh, following the plague of the first born sons that strikes all the Egyptian first born “from Pharaoh’s first born who sits on the throne to the first born of the slave girl…And there shall be a loud cry in all the land of Egypt, such as has never been or will ever be again.” (Shemot 11:5-6)
It seems to me that Pharaoh’s obstinacy to free the Children of Israel, against all logic, is not only typical of Pharaoh. Almost every leader that was enticed to oppress another people became addicted to oppression. At the beginning, the leader and his nation, in theory, enjoy the fruits of the oppression from the cheap labor and from the control itself. Afterwards, the “Golem” turns on his creator, and there are many mechanisms that blind the eyes of the leader, who oppresses, and the oppression continues even when there is no actual benefit, also when the oppressing nation and its leaders sustain many and varied blows.
This phenomenon repeats itself throughout human history. Generally, the nations have not learned from their experience and the mistakes of other nations. The narrative of the exodus from Egypt comes to instruct us that a nation oppressed will always be liberated from the iniquity of oppression, because this is the will of God. It is in our grasp to be active partners in fulfilling God’s will. May we be deserving of this.