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Parshat Shmot 2018
Is it possible that the children of Israel helped to bring their suffering on themselves? Preposterous you say. Blaming the victim for his victimhood? Nevertheless, some respected commentators do find indications of Israelite culpability. One of them was the 19th century Italian Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzato (the SHADAL).
This bizarre idea comes from one word in verse seven: And the Israelites “were fruitful, and swarmed, and multiplied themselves greatly.” Swarmed? Like flies or ants or creepy-crawlies mentioned in the first chapter of Bereshit?
According to Rabbi Sarah Bassin, Luzzato and also Sforno, another Italian commentator, during the decades of their stay in Egypt the Israelites lost their mojo, their dignity and behaved like a swarm of subhuman creatures, which essentially, gave the Egyptians a reason for treating them as subhuman.
This is victim bashing at its worst. Where does it come from? According to Bassin, from the logic that says that a respected, generally moral group of people (Yaacov’s extended family) would not just be picked out and turned into slaves. They must have done something to contribute to this turn of events.
As a form of circumstantial evidence, Bassin notes that no families are named in the parsha, only individuals – the two midwives (perhaps Egyptians) who would not kill the male infants, and Moshe and Aharon. Even their parents are presented simply as “a man from the tribe of Levi who took a woman from the tribe of Levi.” There was a loss of individuality and of group responsibility. Only in next week’s parsha, after Moshe begins the redemption process is there a listing of names. Circumstantial evidence at best.
In many cases, people who are treated as mud may begin to think of themselves as mud. Such a loss of dignity can only lead to further indignity. One way to break the cycle and stop the downward spiral is to identify and eradicate the source of the problem. If we can pinpoint why people hate us perhaps we can remedy the situation.
From our experience we know that’s not always feasible. Even if we can identify the problem we may still be unable to resolve it because it is beyond our control.
In our parsha, the people don’t seem to know or care why they are in the condition they are in. We see them cry out, not to God but simply in suffering, but God hears them and remembers the covenant with Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaacov. At the same time, they seem hesitant about taking the steps necessary to extricate themselves, even with the help of God and Moshe. Their initial reaction to Moshe’s stunning announcement that God has heard their cries and pleas, and has sent him to save them is one of joy. But that dissipates rapidly.
For example, Moshe and Aharon gather the elders of the people and set off with them to Pharaoh’s palace to meet the oppressor face to face and demand three days of freedom to worship their God in the desert. They set out together, as God has said would happen, but the text says that the only ones who actually enter to see Pharaoh are Moshe and Aharon. What happened to the elders? Here the rabbis describe how the contingent walked the streets toward the palace and every few steps another elder would surreptitiously slink away from the pack – until only two people remained.
This is not brought as criticism of the people. You are slaves, have been for generations, and now you are going to face down the chief honcho? I don’t think so. Only people who have received the word of God and are more afraid of Him than of Pharaoh will go through with such a chutzpadik action.
And Pharaoh is no dummy. He knows his slaves. Taking swift action after that first surprise meeting, he ups the demands on the people, making them work harder. As he expected, the people are quick to lose hope. They lambaste Moshe, calling him the problem rather than the solution! Even Moshe is taken by surprise. Evidently he expected Pharaoh to capitulate post haste. He cries out to God – why have you worsened the lot of the people? Why did you send me? Imagine how the people themselves must have felt.
Returning to the victim bashing premise, we can’t really say that the plight of the Israelites is attributable to them on the human plane. Things happen. Circumstances change. Times change. Perhaps Pharaoh wanted to distract the people from other problems in the country such as economic doldrums or an unfavorable military excursion. All’s fair in love and politics, and perhaps the Israelites were simply THERE, to be used as a scapegoat.
The book of Shmot also marks the return of dialogue between God and man. Yosef, with all his dream interpretation abilities never speaks to God or hears anything from Him, not even in a vision or dream. His own dreams had been self-centered and the dreams he interpreted dealt with current events.
Now, 200 years later, Moshe has an encounter with God, and a whole period of interaction at the highest level ever (face to face) begins. We will see how the people react when these dialogues are transmitted to them and this revelation will reveal the inherent intransigent nature of our ancestors.
It is gratifying to realize, in a way, that we have not fallen very far from the tree planted way back then. The problem is that when we rule ourselves, we expect some respect for those in charge of us, and some show of responsibility by those in charge – for all of us, young and old, those who agree and those who disagree, and not just a select few.
This obviously shows that Yosef is not the only one who can dream.