And a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. [Exodus 1: 6]
How do you turn from friend to enemy? How do you destroy a people who saved you and your nation? How do you commit genocide against the will of your own people?
Pharaoh showed how this was possible.
The Torah appears vague. Can anybody actually take power without remembering the Jew who made you the most powerful man in the world? The Talmud offers two possibilities: Of course, Pharaoh knew of Joseph, but there was a new king who never worked with the famed viceroy. Or, Pharaoh was the same king who took Joseph out of prison and made him the second most powerful man in Egypt. But Joseph was dead and his memory became a burden.
For some reason, Pharaoh and his advisers were convinced that the Children of Israel were plotting against the regime. Or, maybe, this was just the narrative they would use. Their claim was that the Jews were working with enemies to invade Egypt, destroy everything and then Jacob’s children would return to Canaan.
The problem was the ordinary Egyptian would never believe this. He still remembered how Joseph saved the people from famine and allowed them to work the land. They appreciated how Joseph had maintained a reasonable tax rate of 20 percent and how he exempted the priests of any obligations.
“Let us outsmart them,” Pharaoh said, “lest they multiply and augment our enemies and make war against us and then leave the land.”
So, Pharaoh employed patience. He waited until Joseph’s brothers died as well as the entire generation of Jacob’s family who had entered Egypt a century earlier. The emperor began with sweet lies. His first act was a tax on the Jews. He said this was only reasonable given that the Jews were foreigners who lived in the autonomous zone of Goshen. Foreigners all over the world pay tax to their hosts. Why should the Jews be different? Of course, if the Jews want to become full Egyptians, leave Goshen and their faith — well, that would be a different story.
The second stage of Pharaoh’s plan was a decree that the Jews had to work. For more than 60 years, Joseph had provided for his brothers and their families. They were left alone to learn Torah and take care of their families. A few opted to become shepherds, their occupation back in Canaan.
Again, the emperor’s argument seemed infallible: Is it fair that the Egyptians work so hard and you don’t work at all? I have no problem with this, but don’t you think this will incur antisemitism?
Tell you what, Pharaoh continued, I’ll get you cushy jobs. You won’t have to work, just report to where the labor office sends you. The Egyptians will work and you’ll just sit and around and pretend to supervise. You can even bring your prayer books to keep you company.
But this arrangement soon faded. Pharaoh began to pull out the Egyptians and quotas could not be fulfilled. The bogus Jewish foremen were asked to explain, and they complained that there was insufficient manpower. Yes, Pharaoh agreed, but we are working under a tight budget. Why don’t you join the men on the floor and pitch in? Let them see you care. It will raise morale.
Eventually, Pharaoh took all the Egyptian labor away and now the Jews had to work. Soon, the Egyptians returned as the foremen. Others became enforcers, joined by the Jews who had assimilated decades earlier.
Then, came genocide. Again, Pharaoh started with sweet-talk. He ordered the training of midwives to detect whether a boy or a girl would be born. The midwife would then be ordered to kill the fetus before birth. The mother would never know. If the father suspected foul play, he would be told to provide witnesses.
Finally, Pharaoh had mobilized his people. They, too, were ready to kill Jews. The first task of the Egyptians was to search Jewish homes for infant males who might have escaped death. They were appointed as slave-masters over the Jewish men, who could be beaten at will. Some of the Egyptians worked the Jews until they were too tired to move. Then, they tried to move in on the Jewish women at home.
How long did the campaign from the privileged to the penury take? Probably, 50 years — long after Joseph, his brothers and the entire generation had passed. They would have been able to see through Pharaoh’s ruse. The Jews who followed were kept too busy to notice the noose tightening around their neck. For a while, they had been consumed with their careers, their money and politics.
Pharaoh seemed to have figured out every angle. In a generation, the millions of Children of Israel would be dead. The boys would be killed at birth; the girls would be taken by the Egyptians and the adults would remain for a slow death at the pyramids.
But the emperor forgot one thing — G-d. He had told the patriarchs that they would resettle in Egypt and even suffer. But He promised to liberate them with a “strong hand.” At the same time that Pharaoh began the genocide, the savior of the Jewish people was born. Pharaoh was told this and ordered an intense search for any male infant who might have survived the Egyptian death machine. But as ironies go, the baby would be adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter, raised as a royal but never forget that he was part of a people that suffered every day and was waiting for G-d to intervene.
And then, the tables began to turn.