Six verses. That is all it takes. It is quite frightening really. Six verses that change a world – including our world. Because in Exodus Chapter 1 verses 8 to 14 an Egyptian monarch sets in train a sequence of events which will lead not only to the division of his country and the oppression of part of the population by another part, but which will (as we know) eventually lead to a liberation, a total destruction of his country and the creation of a new People with a sense of identity formed and hardened by these experiences of enslavement and liberation.
Verse 8 repays closer inspection. It is not a problem that a new Pharaoh arises, because all Pharaohs are mortal (even if some of them seemed to think they could avoid this problem through mummification); Neither is it really a problem that the new Pharaoh is not fully aware of all that has happened in the past – world history is full of great leaders and heroes who have come and gone, and one cannot expect even an expert Economics Minister who had resolved a famine crisis some time ago to be constantly recalled. No, the problems start when he speaks ”el-Amo”, to ”HIS people”, not to ”THE People”. Immediately he has divided the population of Egypt into ”the right kind of Egyptians” and ”The Others”; ”Us” and ”Them”. Having created a category of ”The Other” he goes on to portray the Other as a threat, one that needs urgent and drastic action if ”The Other” is not to grow demographically and become potentially a threat politically or militarily. He initiates this action – and the rest, as they say, is Theology. The split deepens as the oppressed suffer first exclusion from society, then enslavement and eventually murder. There is no way back to any civilised dialogue.
It is always interesting to see what the Torah does NOT say. No reason is given for this political swing; Historians and commentators can try to clarify whether a new dynasty is being established or a new ethnic group has taken control, but nowhere is it stated that he was following a command from an Egyptian deity and nowhere does it state that the ”B’nei Yisrael” are a theological threat because they believe in something different. No, they are just there, either as a real perceived threat for a neurotic leader, or as a useful scapegoat to distract attention from other issues. God remains silent, almost unaware; although in verse 17 the midwives are God-fearing and in verse 20f. God rewards them, God does nothing for the rest of the Israelite families and indeed it is not until this Pharaoh has died – when, one could think, it was rather late – that in 2:23-25 God finally hears the groans of the Israelites and takes note of their situation. This is a major theological challenge, especially in a post-Holocaust era. How long should God need to see and to react, when Israel is under threat?
History is full of examples of leaders who seek to ”divide and rule” and the Present is merely the History of Tomorrow. A text I often use for teaching is a 1938 Austrian railway timetable. After the Deutsches Reich had in March of that year ”connected” Austria to Germany, the German railway administration issued in summer a new timetable which includes a list of ”special holidays” on which cheap excursion tickets could be sold. The list includes Christian holidays (both Protestant and Catholic) such as Xmas, Easter, Whitsun, Ascension Day – and ”The Birthday of the Reich Chancellor and Führer”. And there we have it, in the small print – the Führer is put on the same level as the deity and the Austrians are divided into those who are essentially good Germans, even if they had not realised it, and….. ”The Others”. We all know what happened within a few years to these ”Others”. We also know what happened to this Führer who, seven long and bloody years later, with his Empire in rubble and ashes and the entire continent divided into slaves and slave-drivers, also took his own life. Modern timetables do not list this birthday any more.
But when a leader in a Moslem country speaks only to the Moslems, or only to one group of Moslems amongst several; Or when a ruler in a Christian country divides his population into the ”right” Christians and those heretics who need to be expelled or burnt; Or when a secular politician who leads an entire country shows blatant favouritism only to his own party, be it ”Left” or ”Right”; Or the society is divided into privileged Party Members and non-privileged Non-Party Members; Or when a demagogue speaks of all desperate refugees as potential threats; then it is but a small step to declaring ”The Other” to be not really a human being, with the freedom to make their own political and religious choices, but a threat, an ‘Untermensch’, a being without human rights. Including the right to live.
It just takes a few divisive speeches, a few divisive decrees – and the entire society is doomed, even if may take a while, even if it does not realise it yet. Our problem is not the ”Pharaoh who knew not Joseph”, but the modern Pharaohs who ”do not know” of this one, and what he did, and the price that his country eventually paid. Can modern political leaders learn from these lessons?
Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild serves the communities of Beit Polska.