Two simple Hebrew words stand out in this weeks reading of the first chapter of the Book of Exodus. One is am Nation. The other is mas Tax. Lets see how they work.
First we review the identities of Jacobs family when they arrived in Egypt, a total of 70 people. That is besides Joseph who was already there. Then we proceed with an update confirming that Joseph and his brothers and all that generation died. Time passes.
Then a new king takes power in Egypt, a man who did not know Joseph. Not knowing, or anyway not acknowledging that the onetime Hebrew slave once saved the country and led it into prosperity, this new king only sees the current population of Hebrews as a menace. Never mind what did you do for me lately. Like some other anti-immigrants, he objects to the fact that these immigrants have a burgeoning birthrate. As the JPS translation puts it, they were fruitful and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty. That last phrase in Hebrew isva-yaatz-mu bimod mod. Our commentators point out that mod mod (very much) would be enough. The added form bi-mod indicates that not only did they produce many children but they also built themselves some economic success. Not only are they very strong, says Pharaoh, they became strong to en excessive degree. Dangerous!
So the new tyrant attacks them. First he slaps a heavy tax mas — on them, both to impoverish them and to use their money to finance his idolatrous priesthood. From a religious viewpoint, the act of supporting idolatry would also make them unworthy of redemption, but that is not in Pharaohs mind. He just wants to drive them off the fiscal cliff. Then he can enslave them.
What he says to his people is: Look how the nation of the descendants of Israel is becoming bigger and stronger than we are. Lets get wise to them Note, he calls them a nation am not just Israels descendants. The Torah too already identified the 70 members of Jacobs family as one soul, observes the Kli Yokor commentary. Indeed it is in Egypt that Jewish unity has its difficult beginning. Gone for now are the brotherly plots, the jealousy, the sibling rivalry.
A classic Midrash cites four reasons that the descendants of Jacobs once quarrelsome family, after a couple of centuries in Egypt, and despite their checkered experiences, deserved to be redeemed. Reason 1 they did not change their names. #2 they did not change their language. #3 they protected their families from sexual violations. #4 they had no dilaturin denouncers — among them. No traitors. They pulled together.
That is a nation. Maybe they did not all agree. After all, they were all Jewish. But they pulled together. Would we have the same four merits?
Interestingly enough, Pharaohs idea of getting wise to the Hebrews hava nit-khak-ma does not involve expelling them. No free trip across the border. He warns his people that the Hebrews might just join with some foreign enemy and defeat Egypt, then take the spoils of war andvala min ha-aretz leave the country. The word ala literally climb out of the country indicates that they would go back to Canaan where they came from, as in the modern term aliyah for immigrating to todays Canaan, Israel. Definitely that is something Pharaoh wants to prevent. He wants those immigrants for braceros. Gotta build those store-cities.
Like other people facing similar challenges, our ancestors needed a leader. They could not beat the tax rap. Too late for that. But could they really coalesce into a unified nation? Where could they find a Chavez, a King, a Mandela, even a Chaim Weitzman? Of course they found the one man that would set an example for all those others. His name was Moses, and we meet him in this Sedrah as a baby floating on the Nile. Do yourself a favor and re-read this beginning of the Jewish nation in Exodus 1:1 thru 6:1. Ever since teaching it to a son of mine to read at his Bar Mitzvah I enjoy this review and recommend it. Read it now or next Shabat morning. You know Moses will not avoid the fiscal cliff, but watch him mold a mob of ex-slaves into a nation. He will have doubters, opponents, disunity of all kinds to deal with. Our ancestors were no more docile than we are. He had a speech impediment too. But he had Divine guidance. And something more. He had humility.
Lets pray for leaders who will learn from him.