One could easily read the story of Yaakov and his family’s descent into Egypt and their subsequent enslavement as a typological allegory, namely, a model of the Jewish plight in exile. The successful Yosef worked his way up the ladder in Egypt, saving Egypt from famine and bringing it prosperity. Pharaoh was only too happy for Yosef to bring his family down to Egypt for he thought it will only further the good that Yosef has brought his nation. As time goes on, though, these “immigrants” and their success come to be viewed as a threat of one sort or another to the nation and its identity. The nation’s leaders then seek to contain the perceived threat from this Israelite minority, but realize that for all sorts of reasons this campaign must be carried out with the utmost subtlety:
Come let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply and then, should war occur, they will actually join our enemies and fight against us and go up from the land. (Exodus 1:10)
The Israelites had become so entrenched in society that to remove them required guile. One rabbinic midrash, composed during the period of Roman oppression, envisioned the events this way:
[It was] to teach you that when Pharaoh had said: ‘Come let us deal shrewdly’ (Exodus 1:10), Pharaoh gathered all Israel. He said to them: ‘Please work with me as a favor today.’ This is what is written: So the Egyptians made the children of Israel labor with ruthlessness (befarekh).’ (Exodus 1:13) At first it was with gentle speech (befeh rakh). [A play on the word “befarekh” by splitting it in two] Pharaoh took a basket and trowel, and whoever [saw Pharaoh] taking basket and trowel and working with bricks worked too. Israel immediately went quickly, and vigorously applied their skill along with him all the day, because they were strong and mighty. When it grew dark, he posted taskmasters over them. He said to them: Reckon the number of bricks. They immediately arose and counted them. He said to them: This many you shall produce for me each and every day. He assigned Egyptian taskmasters over the officers of Israel, and the officers were assigned over the rest of the people. Moreover, when he said to them: ‘You shall no longer give the people straw’ (Exodus 5:7), the taskmasters came and counted the bricks. If they were found (the bricks) deficient, the taskmasters beat the officers… (Adapted from Tanhuma Buber Bahaalotkha 23)
Centuries later, Ramban (Nahmanides – Spain 12th century), who was familiar with the Catholic church’s persecution of Jews, pictured Egyptian persecution of the Israelites in a similar manner: “Pharaoh and his wise counsellors did not see fit to slay them by the sword, for it would have been a gross treachery to smite without reason a people that had come into the land by command of a former king. The people of the country also would not give the king consent to commit such perfidy since he took counsel with them, and all the more so since the children of Israel were a numerous and mighty people and would wage a great war against them. Rather, Pharaoh said he would do it wisely so that the Israelites would not feel that it was done in enmity against them.”
What we learn from these interpretations, and others like them composed by sages throughout Jewish history, is that the Egyptian experience was repeated over and over again. Sometimes the oppressors sought to obliterate the Jews, while at other times, they simply sought to erase Jewish identity. For both of these authors, “galut – exile”, whether it be in a foreign land or, at the hands of a foreign oppressor at home, brought with it the realization that only “geulah – redemption”, when Jewish destiny rested in the hands of the Jewish people controlling its own fate, would it have the freedom to truly live and defend both Jewish life and Jewish identity.