Suffering from submissiveness – the price of Jewish silence & Parshat Shemot

As we begin Sefer Shemot, we find the Jewish people at a spiritual and physical low. The Egyptians, having lost their economy to a famine, start a long-lasting precedent of blaming the Jews, and they enslave their neighbors in the service of the country. Then, Paroah, the king of Egypt, hatches a plan to break the Jewish People. His plan seems to unfold in two distinct stages. First:

וַיָּמָת יוֹסֵף וְכָל-אֶחָיו, וְכֹל הַדּוֹר הַהוּא. וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, פָּרוּ וַיִּשְׁרְצוּ וַיִּרְבּוּ… וַתִּמָּלֵא הָאָרֶץ, אֹתָם- Yosef and his generation dies, and the Jewish people multiply and spread out (and settle with Egyptians)

וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלָיו שָׂרֵי מִסִּים, לְמַעַן עַנֹּתוֹ בְּסִבְלֹתָם- It would not be a stretch of the imagination to say that Paroah may have used Yosef’s crippling economic policies against the Jewish people, putting them on public land and having them give their crops to task masters.

וְכַאֲשֶׁר יְעַנּוּ אֹתוֹ, כֵּן יִרְבֶּה וְכֵן יִפְרֹץ; וַיָּקֻצוּ, מִפְּנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל- G-d caused the Jewish people to be sucessful even as they were persecuted (note the singular word “אתו,” showing that the previously spread-out Jewish people united in the crisis). The Egyptians became even more afraid of the Jews, and so;

וַיַּעֲבִדוּ מִצְרַיִם אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּפָרֶךְ.וַיְמָרְרוּ אֶת-חַיֵּיהֶם בַּעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה- The Egyptians make the work on the Jews even more difficult, and the Jews’ life becomes embittered by their constant difficult work.

Then, the Torah’s narration continues straight to the next phase of the Egyptians’ plan. We learn of Paroah’s evil decree to kill all of the Jewish babies born, and of the G-d-fearing midwives’ bravery in saving them.

In both of these narratives, something big is missing; something crucial that could have stopped the entire enslavement process- a reaction. In both stories, cruel and unusual treatment is dealt to the Jewish people. They are enslaved under the harshest terms (“עבודת פרך”), and their ability to recreate and continue as a nation is hindered. Why didn’t they get up and say anything? Why did they just take this suffering in stride without a single reaction, or a single complaint? In short, how could the Jewish people just let the Egyptians take them over?

In the mid-1960’s, noted Jewish historian and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel made a trip to the Soviet Union during the High Holidays to see how the three million Russian Jews were celebrating there. He later wrote about his experiences in his 1966 work The Jews of Silence. In his introduction, Wiesel explained that the objective of his trip was not to speak to Jewish leaders of the Russian communities, but rather the average Jews- he wanted to see how individuals were handling the Cold War USSR’s Antisemitism. Throughout his festive visit, whether Yom Kippur in Moscow, Sukkot in Leningrad (modern day St. Petersburg), or Isru Chag in Kiev, Elie Wiesel noted that there was one common factor; silence. The Jews of Russia, under threat of persecution by the government through the extensive KGB informant system, were afraid to the talk to the outsider who was visiting. Besides for the occasional whisper of a passing Jew, or guarded back-alley encounter, Wiesel had a very difficult time getting through to any of the locals to hear their stories. As a matter of fact, most of the Russian Jews that he spoke to publicly in the street denied that there were any problems at all. But, Wiesel concludes in his introduction, one can see in the truth in their eyes. Their eyes tell the story of a people, persecuted beyond words and scared to speak up.

I went to Russian drawn by the silence of its Jews. I brought back their cry. [1]

There seems to be a common factor between the persecution of Jews in Egypt in the 13th century BCE, in Russia in the 20th century CE, and almost every other persecution during our people’s three long exiles; silence. When a harsh situation is dealt to us, we naturally react submissively- we take the beating, don’t say a word, and hope that salvation will come soon. It is clear from Jewish history that this modus operandi will not work for us- it cannot possibly end well. So, how can we save ourselves from an over-powering enemy?

Moshe later asks G-d how the Jews know that this is real and that their redemption is upon them? G-d responds:

ה’ אֱלֹקֵי אֲבֹתֵיכֶם נִרְאָה אֵלַי אֱלֹקֵי אַבְרָהָם יִצְחָק וְיַעֲקֹב לֵאמֹר פָּקֹד פָּקַדְתִּי אֶתְכֶם

Hashem, the G-d of our forefathers Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, appeared to me saying; פקד פקדתי (lit. I have remembered you)

This wording, initially confusing and unenlightening, is actually believed by many commentators to parallel the verse in Vayechi “ואלוקים פקוד יפקוד אתכם, והעלה אתכם מן-הארץ הזאת,” as both contain the double-wording of the verb “פקד.” From this, it is derived that פקד פקדתי is actually a secret sign, given to Yosef’s brothers and possibly passed down through the Jewish leaders, that their redemption is at last upon them. The redeemer who has truly been charged by G-d to return them to Canaan will know the secret password פקד פקדתי, and this is why when Moshe returns to the Jews in Egypt, he is accepted by them.

But, now that this divinely-inspired “secret code” has been revealed, we can’t help but wonder what its meaning is. The double wording of פקד, is especially confusing, because the Torah does not usually waste words. What does this secret sign of the redemption actually mean?

While many interpret the repetition of פקד as immediacy, which would make sense because by the time פקד פקדתי is used, the redemption would be upon the Jews, I would like to suggest a different idea. In Hebrew grammar, the structure of a verb has the pronoun attached to the word itself, and it is clear from פקד פקדתי that each of the words has a different pronoun built into it. The first word, פקד, is a singular third person masculine or gender neutral word (‘he’ or ‘it’), while the second word, פקדתי, is in the first person (‘I’). With this in mind, a new message emerges from the secret code of the Egyptian redemption; פקד פקדתי, “When it (the Jewish People) chooses, I will choose/remember them.” Wow! This is mind-blowing. The secret of the Egyptian redemption, as told by G-d to Moshe, is to be proactive, for once the Jewish people choose to be redeemed, G-d will redeem them.

This can be shown from a passuk earlier in the story which seems to be a turning point in the Egyptian Jews’ slavery. When Paroah dies, a new king of Egypt is appointed, and the Jewish people’s work seems to have gotten worse:

וַיֵּאָנְחוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל מִן-הָעֲבֹדָה, וַיִּזְעָקו- The Jewish people, having been silent for so long, finally react. They groan and sigh from they suffering, and they cry out. Unfortunately, their cries are too late to stir a reaction from the Egyptians, who have for too long been benefiting from the Jews’ suffering. However, someone is listening;

וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹקִים, אֶת-נַאֲקָתָם- G-d hears their cries

וַיִּזְכֹּר אֱלֹקִים אֶת-בְּרִיתוֹ… וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וַיֵּדַע, אֱלֹקִים- G-d ‘remembered’ His promise… and G-d saw the Jewish people, and He ‘knew.’

With the Jews’ crying out, something seems to change. G-d hears their cries, and remembers their suffering. Rav Avraham Ibn Ezra, on the last of these verses, asks an interesting question; we understand why G-d waited until they cried out to react, but why is it that he doesn’t “see them” or “know them” until this point? He answers, that we can learn out from the seemingly repetitive “seeing” and “knowing” that two things came out of the Jews’ crying out. “וירא אלקים”- G-d saw his chosen people’s public suffering and humiliation under the new king’s increased work, but, “וידע אלקים”- he also acknowledged the private suffering, before the change of king, that one could not have known unless they were omnipresent. It is from both of these that the beginning of the Egyptian redemption is set in motion in the next perek.

So, we see that the turning point of the Egyptian persecution and the beginning of the exodus came from the end of the Jews’ silence and complacency. Once they chose to be redeemed and they cried out, G-d listened and began their salvation. This idea, which led to the Exodus, serves as an important retrospective in other Jewish persecutions, as well.

In the 1960’s, the Jews in the USSR were silent as their communities were infiltrated by informants and their religious rights and spirit slowly but surely quashed by the Russian government. With the danger of speaking up, we can hardly blame the Russian Jews for not protesting their treatment, but, unlike the 13th century BCE, there were other Jews in the world. There were Jews in the United States, Jews in Western Europe, Jews in the newly-born Israel- they could have spoken up on behalf of their Russian brethren, but they didn’t. There wasn’t enough protest, and their silence caused the Russian Jews’ suffering. In Egypt, the Jews’ salvation was delayed because of their silence to G-d. In the Soviet Union, the Jews’ salvation was delayed because of their freed brothers’ silence. Elie Wiesel spells this out in The Jews of Silence:

A number of times I was asked by Russian Jews to detail the various efforts being undertaken abroad in their behalf. I confess that I was ashamed to reveal the truth. I could not bring myself to tell them that only a few thousand Jews went to Washington to take part in their protest march; that the Jews of New York were apparently too busy to fill Madison Square Garden for the demonstration held early in 1965 for the Jews of Russia. I lied to them, exaggerating the figures, told them that a hundred thousand Jews had assembled that evening. They looked at me in simply amazement. What? Only a hundred thousand? A hundred thousand out of three million? Is that all? [2]

In our times, with global Jewry so spread out in the Diaspora, in so many foreign countries, when crises begin in one, it is often easy for those being persecuted to feel isolated. But, what’s worse is when this feeling is correct, when they are truly isolated. Our silence causes their silence, and, as we’ve seen above, enabling silence delays salvation.

In 2013, there are Jews in danger. They live in areas, like Romania, where public Anti-Semitism is allowed. They live in places, like France and Belgium, where 25% of Jews are afraid of wearing a kippa in public in fear of persecution. They live in cities, like Hyannis, Massachusetts, where Jewish institutions are found with swastikas spray-painted on them. They are being persecuted for trying to live their lives as G-d-fearing Jews, and we have an obligation to stand up for them and protest the injustices. Only through our outcries, can we inspire their outcries, and bring their salvation very soon.

But, what is this salvation that is hopefully waiting for us after leaving persecution behind? The Meshech Chachma (Bechokotai) famously teaches that Jewish history for the past two thousand years has been one calamity after another, that even as we are “plucked” out of one enemy country, and put in another, we will eventually find trouble there as well. But, what the Meshech Chachama could not have anticipated is the unique opportunity that we have today, the chance to return home to a land where we rule ourselves- a land where we cannot be persecuted by the government because we are the government. I believe that the State of Israel’s existence gives new meaning to פקד פקדתי, the message for all stages of Jewish salvation.

In our times, the Jewish people are spread out across five continents and hundreds of countries. Whether we are currently being persecuted or not, history has shown that we will inevitably be faced with problems soon enough. Whether we wait until then or not, there is a clear key to ending our strife and bringing the geula, the final redemption: פקד יפקוד- The Jewish people need to choose to be redeemed, only after that will G-d redeem us. Israeli law was made to help enable the “פקד”- The Law of Return makes aliyah as easy as ordering a credit card (possibly easier, because there is no credit check), and with the zechuyot (benefits) of moving, it might even be financially easier for one to start again/continue their life in Israel. And for those who say that we must wait for the geula before coming, I remind you; the first redemption in Jewish history, symbolic of our impending redemption, has פקד before פקדתי- we have to choose geula before G-d chooses us. On Pesach night, we read “בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאלו הוא יצא ממצרים- every generation has the ability the unlock the פקד פקדתי key and leave our “Egypt,” we just need to take the leap of faith and trust in G-d to choose us as we choose him. With Hashem’s help, we’ll see an end to Jewish persecution throughout the world with our more proactive implementation of פקד יפקוד, and the final geula very soon.


  1. The Jews of Silence, by Elie Wiesel, translated by Neal Kozodoy- end of Introduction
  2. ” ” “- Chapter 6, page 72 (1966 English edition; Holt, Rinehart, & Winston)


About the Author
Born and raised in Teaneck NJ, Tzvi Silver moved to Israel in 2012 after catching aliyah fever while learning abroad. Tzvi is now pursuing a degree in Engineering from the Jerusalem College of Technology, and works on the side as a contributor for local newspapers in the New York Area. Tzvi's interests include learning Torah, rabble-rousing, and finding creative ways of mixing the two.
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