The Book of Exodus is always too contemporary for comfort. There has always been slavery in the world, tragically; and there are always Pharaohs.
The ‘new Pharaoh’ who arises to rule Egypt at the beginning of the book may be the world’s first famous populist. We’re told that he ‘doesn’t know Joseph’; he’s not interested in the facts of his own country’s history. Alternatively, as the Talmud suggests, he pretends not to know. It doesn’t suit his interests to acknowledge that he may be in any manner indebted to that ‘Hebrew lad’ whom his predecessor brought out of prison to save the land from famine. He’s the prototype of the ruler who denies the contributions of ‘outsiders’, all too often a first step in denying them rights, first to equality, then to residency and, at worst, to life itself.
This new Pharaoh’s first public pronouncement is that there are too many of Joseph’s people over here: ‘You have to understand’, he tells his own people, ‘that these Children of Israel are now a nation: there are lots of them and they’re more powerful than us.’ This might be thought of as Pharaoh’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech.
But it’s how he continues which is most interesting. ‘Havah nitchakmah lo’, he says; this is generally translated as ‘Come, let us deal wisely with them.’ But this fails to convey the full seductive power of his invitation: ‘you and I together, we’re smarter and savvier than them. We know how to deal with those people.’ It’s the way populists in every generation know how to draw out the worst in us all; the appeal to our insecurities in order to create an ‘us’ against ‘them’. It’s the manipulative allure of being considered one of the ‘clever’, not one of the losers who doesn’t get how dangerous ‘those people’ are. It’s the co-option of the little racist voice which, if we’re honest, whispers its innuendos in somewhere nervous and nasty inside most of us, into the big racist project of the leader who is the right man at the right time, who’s truly one of the people, one of us.
Nachmanides, the great thirteenth century Catalonian rabbi who was eventually forced to flee Spain to save his life, well understood what can happen when a leader legitimises the worst in human nature. He notes how Pharaoh doesn’t use his police or army to drown the Hebrew boy babies. He can rely on ordinary people to do that. They’ll stop at nothing, once the restraint of the law is removed. They’ll listen out for the sound of crying; they’ll go into the houses of their Hebrew neighbours and search; they’ll take the babies from their cots. Should any parent object, should anyone say ‘He just stole my child’, Pharaoh’s officers will say, ‘Of course it’s against the law. Just bring witnesses and we’ll settle your case.’ But no one will have seen, no one will ever have heard anything.
Pharaoh saw himself as the saviour of his country. Instead, he brings only disaster. It may take time, but gross injustice ultimately has gross consequences. ‘Are you still unable to grasp the fact that Egypt is utterly ruined’, Pharaoh’s own advisers tell him, finally voicing their frustration after the seventh of the ten plagues. In the end it is always the land itself which suffers under evil misrule, the poor, the cattle, the crops, the water, the entire ecology.
Samson Raphael Hirsch fought for equal rights for Jews in the Austro-Hungarian Empire before being called to Frankfurt, where he was rabbi of the orthodox community and lived through the unification of Germany under Bismark. Beware, he wrote in his commentary to the Torah, lest you make a person’s rights contingent on anything other than the basic fact of his or her humanity. Once you do that, you open the floodgates to all the horrors of Ancient Egypt.
In every generation we need to be wary not only of our Pharaohs, but, as the first Hasidic leader, the Ba’al Shem Tov, taught, of the little bit of Pharaoh in us all which says yes, thank you for dealing wisely.