As we enter the world of Pharaoh’s Egypt, we encounter a society ruled with an iron – and divine – hand by Pharaoh. He is king and he is god, one of their gods. We know from the end of the story of Yosef that all of Egyptian society has been subjugated to Pharaoh. He owns their bodies (they sold them to him for a few slices of bread during the famine years), he owns all the land (ditto), and his word is law. We also see a few other characteristics that help to keep people in their place. The question is – how do these elements of rule affect the Israelites in their attempt to become an independent nation?
According to Ariel Seri-Levy, chapter five gives us a fascinating insight into two ways in which the political establishment subjugated and oppressed the Egyptians, and all others who lived there. The first was an orderly hierarchy. Who was on the bottom rung? The Israelite slaves, of course, in this case the Israelites. Above them were the police, also Israelites. While at first glance they might be perceived to have better status, the truth is that they were between a rock and a hard place. No matter what they did they would be called traitors, collaborators with the enemy. If they don’t keep the Israelites in order the Egyptians will condemn them. If they are harsh to their brother Israelites, they will condemn them. A lose-lose situation. Above the police were the Egyptian taskmasters who kept the police in line, and above them was Pharaoh.
With a hierarchy like this, we understand why the Israelites, when they finally get out of Egypt, pine for a supreme authority – Moshe – to tell them what to do. That’s what they know. To cite the movie, “The Shawshank Redemption” again, when Red is released and working in a supermarket, he asks for permission to go to the toilet. The manager says, “You don’t have to ask each time. Just go.” And in the toilet Red says to us, “For forty years I’ve been asking permission to piss. I can’t squeeze a drop without say-so.”
The job Moshe and Aharon face is to create an alternative hierarchy, with God at the top, instead of Pharaoh. Pharaoh is no dope. He understands what they are trying to do and so he belittles them, and their master, God. “Who is this God of yours that I should listen to him? I don’t know that God and I won’t send out Israel.”
The second way that Pharaoh tries to neutralize the potential revolt and maintain his hold on the Hebrew slaves is by added oppression. The result he seeks, and attains, is a total lack of free time. Free hands are the devil’s playground and free time for minds to think are anathema to dictatorship. Pharaoh knows this. So he increases the load on the slaves, through the taskmasters (and police). “Increase the work on the people and let them not engage in falsities,” he says. “You’re lazy,” he accuses them, “that’s why you want to go and sacrifice to your lord.” The results come amazingly fast. The people face down Moshe complaining – you only made things worse!
When the going gets tough, the tough get going, or so they say. And here, God decides that Pharaoh’s rule must be overthrown by violence. But Egypt’s suffering is not enough. What is needed is the creation of an alternative – a religious community not based on a rigid and overpowering hierarchy with no free time or freedom of thought. Rather a hierarchy is needed based on equality, wellbeing and liberty. And that’s what the first half of the book of Shmot is about.
But in order for this happen, a leader is necessary. We know from events in the last few years, that when a dictator is overthrown, even one who slaughters thousands of his own people, you can’t just say, “Now you are free. Now you can become a democracy.” It just doesn’t work because the people don’t know what it means and even more importantly, what is expected of them!
So the leader for such a revolution must have the qualities that enable him to offer an alternative hierarchy without becoming the alternative dictator. A person whose instincts for justice are highly developed on the individual and the social levels, and for people of his own group and of other groups.
The story in Shmot gives us examples of Moshe proving himself an advocate of justice – whether the culprit is Egyptian or Hebrew. He has shown his concern for people of other social groups as well, at the well in Midian where he shoos away the shepherds so that Yitros’ daughters can water their flocks. He shows his ego to be quite deflated when God tries to impose the impossible task of leading the Israelites.
Every period has its problems and hopefully a leader arises or develops who knows how to make the most of the situation, bring about the best results, and serve the people, first and foremost. That does not seem to be a popular prescription for national leaders today, but it’s good to know it’s there, if anyone cares to look and do something about it someday.