“The Not-So-Obvious Process of Hebrew Enslavement”
(revised and updated from parashat Shemot 5761-2001)
by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


In this week’s parasha, parashat Shemot, we begin our annual encounter with the story of the Egyptian enslavement of the Jewish people.

The Sons of Israel come down to Egypt as free people. They receive a royal invitation from Pharaoh himself, who in fact sends the royal “movers” to bring their families and belongings from Canaan to Egypt. The patriarch, Jacob, is welcomed at a special audience with Pharaoh himself, and the Sons of Israel are given privileged status, and serve as royal shepherds. To top it all, the children of Israel are granted their own land, the land of Goshen, where they may practice their unique Jewish lifestyle without interference. After all, Jacob was quite concerned that his children would quickly assimilate if they came down to Egypt and lived among the Egyptians.

And yet, despite all the preventive measures–we know that assimilate they did! We learn this from the festival of Passover, which literally means that G-d had to “pass over” the houses of the Jewish people when the Angel of Death struck the Egyptian first-born. Why would that be necessary? After all, the Jews lived separately from the Egyptians–in their own land of Goshen.

According to the Midrash, since the period of “enslavement” is calculated from the birth of Isaac, the number of years that the Jews actually dwelt in Egypt was 210 years. The number of years that the Jews actually performed “hard labor” was approximately 110 years. Obviously, during those 210 years, many Jews got tired of living in the Egyptian “Boro Park” and moved out of Goshen, to the more mainstream, upscale areas where they lived in closer proximity to the Egyptians.

If you check carefully in this week’s parasha there is no mention in the entire parasha of any official decree formalizing the enslavement by Pharaoh. Perhaps, that is what is meant by Pharaoh’s words when he says, (Exodus 1:10): הָבָה נִתְחַכְּמָה לוֹ, “Come, let us deal wisely with the Jews.” Perhaps he means: We need not directly enslave them. We can, after all, accomplish our objective with subtlety and etiquette, and emerge with clean hands.

According to many commentators, the Egyptians employed a shrewd strategy, calling upon the civic sensibilities of the Jewish people, in order to draw the Hebrews into the process of assimilation. Scripture informs us (Exodus 1:11), that the Jews built the great storehouses in the land of Egypt, Pitom and Ramses. Were they forced to build them? Nothing in the text suggests that. Perhaps, there was social pressure. Pharaoh might have said: “And so, my fellow Egyptians, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” And, as we know, our civic-minded Jews are always Johnny-on-the-spot to volunteer. And so it was. The ancient Hebrews volunteer their talents, resources and efforts to build this important national project. They become, in effect, more Egyptian than the Egyptians, setting a pattern of behavior that Jews were to follow throughout their long history in the Diaspora.

The Jews in Egypt said to themselves: “We are, after all, acculturated, sophisticated Jewish Egyptians”–the equivalent of today’s Jewish Americans. “We no longer need to live in ghettos. Have no fear, Oh father, Jacob! Surely you have no doubt that we will be able to maintain our Jewish identities, even outside the Ghettos?!” But, as we know, there is no truth to that proposition. Without intensive Jewish environment, good schools, and a strong commitment to Jewish rituals, Jewish identity quickly evaporates.

Eventually, the Jews do become physically-persecuted slaves in Egypt, and are forced to do rigorous labor against their will. Yet, the message of parashat Shemot is that the Jewish people probably became slaves long before the Egyptians enforced slavery upon them. Long before the back-breaking labor, the Sons of Israel had probably become slaves to Egyptian culture, Egyptian fashion and Egyptian values. It was inevitable that these committed Jewish-Egyptian “patriots” would become so deeply dedicated to Egypt politically, civically and emotionally that they would ultimately be unable to extricate themselves.

Is this what is happening to American Jewry today? I hate to spoil the party, but it seems to be so. The American Jewish Committee survey from way back in the year 2000 reported that most American Jews have already defined-down their observance and notions of Judaism. We know that American Jews are the least observant of all religious groups in America. Jews attend synagogue far less frequently than other religious groups attend their houses of worship. For most of American Jews, the quality of Jewish life in America for most Jews has been in the process of decline for more than 50 years. It was inevitable that most Jews would eventually conclude that there is really nothing so terrible with intermarriage. The recent American Jewish Committee survey reports that a whopping 56% find nothing wrong with intermarriage, and only a paltry 12% strongly object to it. Even more amazing, were the recent criticisms leveled at the Birthright trips to Israel for promoting Jewish in-marriage!

And, so, the bottom line is: You don’t need a Pharaoh or taskmasters to be enslaved. “Slavery” can be the direct result of one fateful little word, “attitude.”

May you be blessed.