The status quo almost never changes by good times. It just gets better. It is only when bad times dominate that the status quo crumbles.
At first, the Jews were the privileged in Egypt. They were the children of Jacob, the patriarch who had saved Egypt from famine. They lived in Goshen, a land of fresh water and fertile soil. They were wealthy and autonomous. They were protected by Joseph.
Then, Jacob died. But the situation of the Jews appeared stable.
“And Joseph died, and all his brothers, and the entire generation. And the children of Israel were fruitful and swarmed and increased and became extremely strong, and the land became filled with them. And a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.”
Steadily, things turned worse. The Jews lost their autonomy, lost their wealth and went down the slippery slope toward slavery.
Pharaoh took his time. He first sweet-talked the Jews. It started with taxation. The Jews seemed to understand. After all, they reasoned, it was Pharaoh who had given them food during the famine. They owed him.
Then, the Jews were recruited for work. At first, the assignment was light, mostly in the fields. As time passed, the labor became intense and the Jews were molding the bricks to build cities for the emperor who pretended to be a god.
Rabbi Chaim Bin Attar, known as the Or Hachayim, outlined the downfall of the Jews in Egypt. It started with Joseph, who remained the viceroy of Egypt for 80 years. Had he continued to live, it was doubtful whether the Egyptians could have ruled the Jews. After Joseph died, his brothers remained. Again, as long as even one brother was alive, the Egyptians remained respectful. The last brother was Levi who lived well past 150, some 116 years before the Jewish exodus from Egypt.
Then, came the generation of those who settled in Egypt with Jacob. They were intelligent people who would not have been deceived by Pharaoh. They also would not have tolerated oppression. When they died, it marked an opportunity for the emperor.
Why did Pharaoh want to enslave the Jewish people? The Or Hachayim has an explanation that would satisfy most political scientists. Pharaoh knew by tradition that the Jews planned to return to reclaim their land from the Canaanites, the relatives of the Egyptians through Ham. The emperor decided he would turn Goshen into a giant prison so the Jews could never escape Egypt.
But this would not be easy. The Jews were different from other nations. Most people would have assimilated into the occupying power. The Jews refused. Also, they were rapidly multiplying, having as many as six children at a time. That would leave mothers of other nations exhausted and unwilling to have more children. But the Jewish women would simply try again. For a while, the Egyptians didn’t even notice the incredible birthrate of the Jews. By that time, they were everywhere.
Another challenge for Pharaoh was how the Jews stuck together. People under occupation usually fall apart. But the Jews in Egypt remained united and this compensated for their minority status. It also made them stronger, perhaps even more than their host nation.
But without Jacob, Joseph and his brothers, the Jews slowly fell. And with the passing of the original generation, the commitment of the Jewish people to G-d dropped dramatically. Finally, the stage was set: The Egyptians saw the Jews as inferior.
Still, Pharaoh remained frustrated. The greater the oppression, the more G-d helped the Jews. The Jews kept multiplying until Pharaoh said, “Throw the newborn boys into the river.”
Demography became the process that ensured Jewish redemption. The Jews increased despite lethal measures. But the death of so many babies took its toll and the leadership began to falter. At one point, a leader of the Levites, Amram, separated from his wife, unwilling to bring in children marked for death by the Egyptians. Many Jews followed Amram’s lead.
The one who changed Amram’s mind was his six-year-old daughter Miriam. Miriam argued that her father’s abstinence was harsher than the evil decrees of Pharaoh. The emperor had doomed the males. But Amram was even preventing females from being born. Even at such a young age, Miriam understood that Pharaoh must be defied to ensure the redemption of the Jews.
How Amram would produce a child remained a mystery. His wife Yocheved was 130 years old. Her great grandmother Sarah had lost her fertility long before her 90th birthday.
Still, Amram acceded and G-d rolled back Yocheved’s biological clock. A boy was born and he filled the room with light. Amram, recognizing Miriam’s gift of prophecy, kissed his daughter.
But the story did not end there. The Egyptians were closely monitoring the Jews and reporting all births. They knew Yocheved had been pregnant and began to investigate. Yocheved took her baby and hid him in the rushes of the Nile.
Watching were Amram and Miriam. Now, Amram smacked his daughter on the head and asked, “Where is your miracle now?”
“And his sister stood from afar to find out what would be done to him.”
And G-d brought another miracle. None other than Pharaoh’s daughter saw a reed basket with a crying baby. Immediately, the emperor’s daughter knew the foundling came from the Jews. Miriam approached and offered a wet nurse — Yocheved.
“The child grew up, and she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became like her son. She named him Moses, and she said, ‘For I drew him from the water.'”
Right under Pharaoh’s eyes, Moses grew into the man who would lead his people out of Egypt. As a teenager, he ran Pharaoh’s palace. Unlike his enslaved brethren, he knew freedom and rejected the oppression of any Jew.
Again, the process was painfully slow. Moses would flee Egypt after he killed a slave master who beat a Jew. Two prominent Jews saw this and denounced him. Moses would spend 60 years in distant Midian until G-d ordered him to return to Egypt to save the Jews. When he met Pharaoh, the emperor imposed additional measures on the Jews. Moses was stunned: Where was the miracle?
“And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Now, you will see what I will do to Pharaoh, for with a mighty hand he will send them out, and with a mighty hand he will drive them out of his land.'”