Pharaoh proclaims the Israelites a threat, and yet fears their leaving: “Come let us deal cleverly with them, lest they increase, and when war strikes they will join with our enemies, and leave [Exodus 1:10].” This paradox is familiar from Jewish history. Jews were expelled throughout history, but equally often, tyrants who felt threatened by Jews nonetheless refused to let them immigrate to more benign lands.
Part of the answer is Pharaoh’s ego, that he could contain and handle this “dangerous” people. Yet part of it is surely a subconscious awareness that Jews contribute far more than they endanger the lands in which they live. History shows a clear pattern: From Inquisition Spain to modern Europe, the loss of a nation’s Jews is a catalyst for decline. Alternately, as we see in the U.S., welcoming Jews is a boon for any nation seeking to flourish.
God may have hardened Pharaoh’s heart, but it was one more case of the Talmudic dictum that God leads a person where he already wishes to go. Pharaoh was a rigid personality, not flexible enough to free the Jews inside Egypt, or to let them go. Rather he held on until catastrophe struck him and the nation he led. Too many tyrants in the ages that followed were slow to learn Pharaoh’s lesson, to their own sadness and that of the Jewish people.
Rabbi David Wolpe is spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter: @RabbiWolpe.