J.J Gross

We were slaves to Egypt, not to Egyptians (Parshat Vaera)

Parshat Shemot gave us mixed signals regarding Egypt’s attitude and intentions regarding the Bnei Israel.

On the one hand Egypt seems desirous of holding on to the Bnei Israel as ‘slaves’ :

— פֶּן־יִרְבֶּ֗ה וְהָיָ֞ה כִּֽי־תִקְרֶ֤אנָה מִלְחָמָה֙ וְנוֹסַ֤ף גַּם־הוּא֙ עַל־שֹׂ֣נְאֵ֔ינוּ וְנִלְחַם־בָּ֖נוּ וְעָלָ֥ה מִן־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

… lest they multiply and should war occur he (Israel) too will join
our enemies v’ala min haaretz  [normally translated and ‘and so go up out of the land’]. (Shemot 1:10)

Based on this verse the Egyptians very much want to hold onto their Israelite slaves.

And yet just a few verses later the opposite is manifest, as the Pharaoh orders the Israelite midwives

אִם־בֵּ֥ן הוּא֙ וַהֲמִתֶּ֣ן אֹת֔וֹ
 if it is a male, you should kill him. (1:16)

Clearly there seems to be a conflicting attitude.

Moreover, the clause in verse 10 וְנִלְחַם־בָּ֖נוּ וְעָלָ֥ה מִן־הָאָֽרֶץ as meaning ‘and so go up out of the land’ makes no sense. After all, if such a war were to occur and the Bnei Israel were to serve as a fifth column, the last thing they would do (as victors) would be to leave the land of Egypt. If anything they would stay put and subjugate the indigenous Egyptians.

So why do we conventionally translate וְנִלְחַם־בָּ֖נוּ וְעָלָ֥ה מִן־הָאָֽרֶץ as ‘and so go up out of the land’? Perhaps we reflexively associate the root ‘alah’ with ‘aliyah’, and ‘aretz’ with Eretz Israel, which is hardly the case here. The last thing Egyptians would think of is aliyah and Israel.

I would suggest that  וְעָלָ֥ה מִן־הָאָֽרֶץ means literally ‘to rise from the land’ i.e. to reach a high social status.

Now, mind you, there were already plenty of Israelites who were doing quite well for themselves. As I pointed out earlier, slavery in Egypt was an entirely different institution than in the American ante-bellum South. Everyone in Egypt was a slave except for Pharaoh, in the sense of kicking the one below him and kissing the one above. That was the social order in Egypt. And we need no greater proof that some Israelites had made it fairly high on the social ladder than the fact that Pharaoh had a working relationship with Israelite midwives, and that Moshe and Aharon could breeze into Pharaoh’s throne room at will and talk to him face to face.

Now let us turn to Parshat Vaera.

At first there is no indication of any need for plagues to convince Pharaoh to allow the Bnei Isrel to leave. Indeed, from what we have gleaned from Parshat Shemot, the Egyptians would have been delighted to see them go. Could it be that it was the Bnei Israel who wanted to stay?

Let’s have a look at the text. God tells Moshe to tell the Bnei Israel:

אֲנִ֣י יְהֹוָה֒ וְהוֹצֵאתִ֣י אֶתְכֶ֗ם מִתַּ֙חַת֙ סִבְלֹ֣ת מִצְרַ֔יִם
I am the Lord and I will take them from under oppression of Egypt (6:6).

Moshe obeys God:

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר מֹשֶׁ֛ה כֵּ֖ן אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְלֹ֤א שָֽׁמְעוּ֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה מִקֹּ֣צֶר ר֔וּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָ֖ה קָשָֽׁה
And Moshe spoke thus to the Bnei israel and they did not heed Moshe for lack of patience and because of hard work (6:9).

Now what if the Bnei Israel HAD listened to Moshe? Clearly the story would have ended here. They would have packed their bags and gone. That they CHOSE not to listen had nothing to do with their freedom to leave. It had to do with their desire to stay.

As we saw in Parshat Shemot, the Egyptians really wanted to get rid of the Bnei Israel.

It is only now that the business of plagues begins. And the purpose of these plagues would be twofold:

  1. To persuade Pharaoh to kick the Bnei Israel out (against their will) and;
  2. To help the Bnei Israel realize that they had no business staying in Egypt, and that it was their destiny to get out and go back to where they belong.

(Although I always stick to the pshat (literal meaning) of the text, it is interesting to note that the Midrash says only 20% of Bnei Israel ever left Egypt – which just shows the degree of integration, assimilation and inertia that prevailed — and this was AFTER the ten plagues.)

So what exactly was going on with these Israelites? To what precisely were they slaves?

A hint is offered in verse 6:5 when God says:

וְגַ֣ם אֲנִ֣י שָׁמַ֗עְתִּי אֶֽת־נַאֲקַת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר מִצְרַ֖יִם מַעֲבִדִ֣ים אֹתָ֑ם
…” And I have also heard the groaning of the Bnei Israel
that Egypt subjugates them.

Note that it is EGYPT which subjugates them, not EGYPTIANS. Perhaps the Israelites are enslaved to the very lifestyle they enjoyed in Egypt, much as most Jews are slaves to the lifestyle of their diaspora host countries today?

For, indeed, is a corporate lawyer working 90 hours a week in New York for $500,000 a year not a slave to his job because he is enslaved to his lifestyle? Indeed, is he not a slave to America? And the same is a fortiori true for Jews in most of Europe or South Africa who really have no business being there. The handwriting is so clearly inscribed on the proverbial walls of France, Belgium, Germany, Sweden and even England that one has to be fundamentally defective not to see it. Yet here, too, the Jews are slaves to their respective countries, slaves to the lifestyle that country offers – be it for richer or for poorer.

Ask most committed Jews in the diaspora why they remain there and you get one of two reasons:

  1. I don’t have enough money to become an Israeli, or
  2. I have too much money to become an Israeli. (This is true even for some who actually do choose to make their home in Israel. Often American Jews settle in Israel but never make official aliyah, as doing so would have tax consequences. Yet they are shameless when it comes to taking advantage of everything Israel has to offer.)

The first group that cannot picture itself leaving the galut are the bottom rung slaves; wage slaves who will not run for their lives unless they first reach a certain economic threshold (a threshold that always gets mysteriously upped as soon as it is reached).

The second group are those who are too wealthy, and refuse to pay the price in terms of Israeli taxes despite the fact they would still be rich after paying for the privilege of living as free people.

But very, very few will read the handwriting on the wall and say they have enough to make a go of it. Because slavery is addictive. Most of them are slaves to money, to a lifestyle, to their careers (especially Americans who live to work rather than work to live, and whose egos and sense of self worth are hopelessly bound up in their profession, corporate rank, partnership status, etc.) not to mention paying blood money for their children to get a Harvard, Yale, Princeton diploma, and to owning a 3,500 square foot home (for starters) in a posh neighborhood.

Hence, we Jews rarely act in our own best interests, preferring to be armchair Zionists, sending our kids to gap years at questionable yeshivot, or worse yet, to real hesder yeshivot where they sit like eunuchs next to real Jews who know how to fight and can combine Torah with Golani and Tzanhanim.

These children (for they remain children, unlike their Israeli counterparts) then go back to America to fall under the nefarious influence of college professors who castrate them into politically-correct mutants for tuition of a mere $60,000 a year, before yielding them up to 7-9 years of professional schools and career slavery from which it becomes nearly impossible to liberate oneself.

How sad. How identical to ancient Egypt where “not enough” and “too much” prevented our ancestors from hearing Moshe.

They were “kotzer ruach” — too impatient, too busy, to listen because of their “avodah kasha” – the need to finish a legal brief, another public offering, a new hedge-fund shenanigan while their families, and quality of life, were neglected from havdalah to Lekhu Veranana

Nothing ever changes.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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