Pharaoh’s Evil Words

Posted on January 4, 2024

By Rabbi Alex Freedman.


It may be snowing outside in Chicago, but the Torah has us thinking about springtime, as we begin the book of Exodus this week and turn our sights to Passover.

In Parashat Shmot, wicked Pharaoh sets everything in motion when he feels threatened by the growing Israelite community and desires to enslave them. Here is what he tells the Egyptian people: “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise, in the event of war, they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.” (Ex. 1:9, 10; translation JPS).

The first time we read this, we may assume that this was a one-time speech, made by one ruler in one specific context. But the 19th century Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch sees the same words differently, as a pattern that would recur throughout history. Here is Hirsch:

“Alas, there is nothing new under the sun, and these machinations are as old as history itself. Whenever a despot has conspired to subjugate his own people, he has delivered to them some other nation to oppress as compensation for and distraction from the tyranny they themselves were suffering. This technique has been the source of many decrees issued against the Jews, and it may have lain at the root of the schemes of this first inventor of ‘Jew laws.’”

In other words, Hirsch sees Pharaoh’s message to the Egyptians as a blueprint that other tyrants would echo against the Jewish people throughout history. The sense that there are too many Jews. The call to be shrewd with them. The sense that the Jews are a fifth column and may turn against the nation. The sense that a nation’s troubles are the fault of the Jews alone. Read in this light, Pharaoh’s words are even more frightening because our enemies have turned to this template again and again throughout history.

The first way we understand the Passover story is on its own terms as a story that happened a long time ago. A deeper way to consider the Exodus, though, is as the beginning of a pattern that would recur throughout Jewish history.