Midrash Tanchuma Shemot: Egypt – A paradigm for anti-Semitism

Jewish cemetery in Chișinău. From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository

In this week’s Parsha the Egyptian people seem to suddenly turn on the Jews. What better source to gain insights into anti-Semitism. Of course, this is not the first appearance of this phenomenon. As we say in the Haggadah at the Passover Seder, Laban was worse than Pharaoh. Laban contemplated genocide while Pharaoh only killed the males. Why did Laban hate Jacob and his family so much. It seems that it was fine for Jacob to make Laban wealthy. But once Jacob also got wealthy, Laban’s whole attitude towards him changed. That certainly sounds familiar. Throughout our history a Jewish presence in any given country often brought prosperity. But when the Jews prospered in the process, it was a cause for jealousy and hatred. 

To be fair, there is also the irrational hatred of Jews that cannot be explained. It was summed up by the classic Biblical commentator Rashi“Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai said it’s a time-worn principle that Esau hates Jacob (Genesis 33:4 – from the Sifrei)

Spare the rod spoil the nation

First, a word on how Midrash Tanchuma approaches major episodes in the Parsha.  It often starts out by reframing that episode in terms of axioms that we know to be true elsewhere. This week’s Parsha begins with the familiar axiom of “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” Which is suspiciously close to  the verse in Proverbs “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him early.” (Proverbs 13:24) 

The Midrash sites many examples including King David and his son. “David did not discipline Absalom so he went astray and tried to kill (David).”

The Midrash seems to be applying this axiom to the Egyptian bondage and the rise of anti-Semitism throughout Jewish history. The Children of Israel had achieved a comfortable lifestyle in Egypt and had been accepted in all strata of Egyptian society. Along with this new status the Israelites started – what would unfortunately become a time-honored tradition – to jettison Jewish traditions. 

When Joseph died, they reneged on the practise of circumcision saying ‘let’s be more like the Egyptians”’

The Israelites were clearly trying to assimilate into Egyptian society. Why were they rebuffed? 

The Bible talks psychology not theology

Interestingly enough, the Torah provided a totally rational reason to explain the Egyptian enslavement and murder of Jews. It was simply a case of protectionism and nationalism. The Jews were suddenly suspected of being potentially disloyal – a “third column” that had to be subjugated. As the verse in our Parsha clearly states:

“Let us deal shrewdly with them (the Israelites) so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and we will be displaced from the land.” (Exodus 1:10)

However, Midrash Tanchuma sees this as the official policy statement. It reads like the headlines in the Cairo Times.  But it’s not the real reason.

Bringing G-d back into the equation

Historians assert that the First and Second Temples of Jerusalem were destroyed because of Jewish rebellions. The first against Babylonia and the second against Rome. That’s certainly the way it seems to an outsider looking in.

But that is ignoring the entire spiritual context. 

After all, these events were foretold in the Bible. The Prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel warned against impending destruction if the Jews did not mend their ways? So when you look at these events through the lens of the Bible, the destruction of the Temple had nothing to do with rebellions against mighty empires and everything to do with a rebellion against G-d. 

A test of how to perceive reality.

The Torah states that the Egyptian bondage came about because the Egyptians feared that the Jews would align with the enemies of Egypt. That was the political rhetoric at the time.  You have the free will to explain the enslavement and murder of Jews without G-d in the picture. 

If you look deeper you will see a clear spiritual cause and effect. As Jews, we are constantly tested as to how we perceive reality.

Another example of this is when the Bible states that the night before the splitting of the Red Sea there were “winds blowing all night.” So centuries later the New York Times can report a theory that the alleged “splitting of the Red Sea” was simply a weather condition. (True it occurred at exactly the moment that the Jews were being pursued by the Egyptian army, but, nonetheless, it was just a weather condition). It’s another example of G-d hiding His tracks giving you options on how to interpret events around you. 

The same word in Hebrew for test (“nais”) is also the word for miracle. Because every miracle is a test of whether you recognize G-d’s hand in history or you choose the political (or meteorological) explanation instead.

The unexpected perpetrator of anti-Semitism

A task force investigating how anti-Semitism could have been mitigated in ancient Egypt would never think to target the real perpetrator. 

The Jews who have abandoned their faith.  

According to the Midrash, when the Jews abrogated a defining ritual of circumcision, G-d aroused anti-semitic feelings among the Egyptians.  Fear, loathing and the classic Jewish canard of “dual loyalty.” The punishment fit the crime (measure for measure). Because the Jews wanted to fit in, G-d made them exceedingly unwelcome. 

  Roses among the thorns

As with many dark chapters in Jewish history, there are miracles mixed in among the tragedies. In fact, MIdrash Tanchuma offers the encounter of Moses with the “burning bush” as a metaphor for G-d sharing in our misfortune.

“The Holy One, Blessed Be He, said: I wrote in the Torah: ‘I will always be together with (the Jewish People) in their times of anguish  (Psalms 91:15); Since they were enslaved, I joined them in a place of oppression – a (burning) thorn bush. Therefore, I appeared (to Moses) among thorns.”

A redeemer arises against all odds

There are some dramatic aspects of the Egyptian bondage we often overlook. The one who is charged with freeing the Jews from slavery has a most unlikely rise to power.  

Like those in the Holocaust who, out of desperation, entrusted their children to Christian families, the parents of Moses sent him floating down the Nile to an uncertain future. 

 According to the Midrash, at the very moment that Pharaoh’s daughter saw Moses, she had just abandoned the idolatrous culture of her home. She was happy to adopt the child of the Hebrew slaves – whom she names Moses. (Despite the fact that her own father had decreed the drowning of all Jewish babies). When Moses later flees Egypt, he arrives in Midyan at exactly the right moment to save Yitro’s daughters from being attacked by a gang of shepherds. And at the very moment that they bring Moses home to their grateful father, Yitro, he too had just abandoned his idolatrous faith. Yitro  is more than happy to marry off his daughter to a Hebrew refugee – Moses. Someone who grew up in the palace of Pharaoh, yet never adopted the idolatrous culture of his adopted family.

Are there lessons for the resurgence of anti-Semitism today

Most articles on the subject would discuss the need for heightened sensitivity to socio-economic class divisions in America. The need for better “Hasbara” (Public Relations) to counter the BDS movement on campuses. And that’s all true.

Midrash Tanchuma, however, brings up an inconvenient truth. Out of love for His children, G-d chooses to discipline us.  So when we encounter anti-Semitism, we have to search within ourselves and address our spiritual deficiencies

About the Author
After college and Semicha at Yeshiva University my first pulpit was Ogilvy where I wrote TV commercials for brands like American Express, Huggies and Duracell. My passion is Midrash Tanchuma. I am an Architect of Elegant Marketing Solutions at www.mindprintmarketing.com. We are living in (where else) the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.
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