“The Etiquette of Evil”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Shemot we learn of the cruel enslavement of the Jewish people by Pharaoh and the Egyptians.

The Torah relates that after Joseph and all his brothers had passed on, the original 70 descendants of Jacob who came down from Canaan to Egypt increased and were so fruitful that the land of Egypt was filled with them.

A new Egyptian king, who did not know Joseph, warns the citizens of Egypt that the children of Israel are more numerous and more powerful than the entire Egyptian people. To address his “Jewish Problem,” Pharaoh says (Exodus 1:10), “Hah’vah nit’chak’mah lo, pen yir’beh, v’hah’yah kee tik’reh’nah mil’chah’mah, v’no’saf gam hoo ahl so’ne’ay’noo, v’nil’cham bah’noo, v’ah’lah min hah’ah’retz,” come, let us deal wisely with them [the Israelites], lest they increase, and if war breaks out they will join our enemies and fight against us and leave the country.

Our rabbis are perplexed as to why Pharaoh needs to outsmart and outfox the Israelites, rather than deal with them directly. Pharaoh, after all, is an all-powerful ruler who could simply have all the Israelites exterminated.

From the precise words of Pharaoh’s declaration it is not at all clear what are his true intentions. It could very well be that Pharaoh had not yet decided how to deal with the Israelites, or is trying to conceal his intentions from his advisers. Does he simply wish to address the issue of the incredible Jewish birthrate by stifling their natural increase, or does he wish to do away with the people? Will his concern about the Israelites forming a fifth column lead him to enslave the people and exploit them, or will he decide to wipe them out entirely?

The Ramban, in his biblical commentary, gives an extensive and rather brilliant analyses of what Pharaoh’s intentions really were, underscoring as well, Pharaoh’s limitations. Among Pharaoh’s concerns, the Ramban suggests, were the following:

1. Although Pharaoh was a virtually omnipotent leader, it would still not be appropriate for him to attack the Israelites without justification, since Jacob and his family were asked to come to Egypt and remain there at Pharaoh’s own invitation.
2. Pharaoh still had to deal with public opinion. After all, the Israelites had been in Egypt for over two hundred years, and, in many instances were next door neighbors of the Egyptians, and possibly even friends. Some Egyptians most likely shared the same house with Israelites.
3. There was always the possibility that if there were any action against the Jews, the Jews might rise up to defend themselves. While the Egyptian army was much larger and more powerful, any attempt to eliminate the Israelites would be bloody and costly for the citizens of Egypt.

For these reasons, Pharaoh felt that he had to deal shrewdly with the Israelites, without attacking them openly. Consequently, Pharaoh’s first step was to impose a tax upon the Israelites in the form of forced labor, since it was not unusual for strangers in a country to be taxed by the host kingdom. He then secretly ordered the midwives to terminate the life of any male child during the mother’s labor, when she wouldn’t realize what was happening. He then instructed all his people to cast every male child into the river. By having lay people perform the royal bidding, no one could complain about an official government act. The Egyptian citizenry was only too eager to comply. In fact, from the verse in Exodus 2:3, “V’lo yach’lah oad hatz’pee’no,” we learn that Yocheved could no longer hide the baby Moses, implying that Egyptians were most likely conducting searches of all Jewish homes and removing children from their cradles to throw them in the river.

When, in 1963, Hannah Arendt, the great Jewish-German political theorist (1906-1975) authored her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, she appended the controversial subtitle, A Report on the Banality of Evil, implying that there was a tendency among ordinary people to obey orders and conform to mass opinion without critically thinking about the implications of their actions or inactions. Many Jewish thinkers were unhappy with this hypothesis, concluding that Arendt’s analysis seemed to absolve the criminals of their murderous actions. Whether or not truly perfidious deeds can be performed without people thinking of their implications remains debatable. But the fact that there is often a delicate “etiquette” to committing evil cannot be denied. Pharaoh’s decision to deal with the Israelites in a “shrewd” manner is proof positive of this highly nefarious human propensity.

May you be blessed.