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Parshat Shemot

Pharaoh’s Decree 

The Torah tells us that the reason the Egyptians instigated the plan to enslave the People of Israel was because they feared that the people they ruled would rise up against them. “And it will happen when war is declared that they will join along with our enemies and fight us and go up from the land.” They wanted to allay their fears through constant enslavement which they believed would discourage any possible thought of freedom. The Egyptians wanted the People of Israel to believe that they (the Egyptians) were the dominant ones. 

As opposed to the decree of slavery, the decree that all baby boys must be thrown into the Nile is not explicitly explained. One could suggest that the murder of their infants was meant to demoralize them and intensify their sense of worthlessness. But this explanation does not take into account the initial attempt to get the midwives to selectively kill the male children and make it seem like natural causes. So it seems more likely that this decree was also meant to immobilize the fighting men by targeting their ability to rebel. 

Rabbeinu Bechaye explains the increasing severity of the decree in a slightly different manner, yet he too believes there is a correlation between the two decrees. He explains that the Egyptians were trying to thin out the People of Israel so they would not rebel; the smaller a minority they were, the less power and influence they would have. Initially Pharaoh thought he could diminish their numbers by exhausting their energy through hard work, which would lead to less children. But instead the People of Israel actually increased and so he needed to kill them outright in order to achieve the desired result - maintaining the relatively small population of Israel in relation to the Egyptians. 

To exhaust the power of Israel and diminish the [number of] children so they are not fruitful and do not multiply. For hard work exhausts a person’s energy and diminishes their seed. And because he saw that they were not decreasing with all this, but rather increasing, as it says, “And when they afflicted him so they increased,” he therefore decreed they should be killed. (Rabbeinu Bechaye, Shmot 1) 

We have mentioned two reasons so far, one psychological (demoralization) and the other pragmatic (reducing the population in order to eliminate the threat of rebellion). Interestingly, the midrash argues that casting the male children into the Nile was not a pragmatic solution at all. 

The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, “Evil one, the person who gave this advice is stupid, he should have killed the women. If there are no women where will the men marry wives from? One woman cannot marry two men but one man can take ten wives, or a hundred. “The princes of Zoan are utter fools…” (Yishayahu 19) for they gave him this advice. (Shmot Rabba, Shmot) 

One man can have many more children than one woman can. He can father an entire generation of large and powerful offspring. One mistake, one male child that survives, could ruin the entire program. Maybe this is the reason the Ohr Hachayim disagrees with this interpretation of the decree. He argues that leaving only the daughters of Israel would force them to intermarry. In accordance with the position in the gemara that women always prefer to be married (tav limeitav tan d u- it is better to be two) he believes they would have chosen to marry Egyptian men over spinsterhood. These marriages would cause the People of Israel to assimilate into the Egyptian people; their national identity would eventually fade away along with any possibility of leaving Egypt. (Ohr Hachaim, Shmot) This explanation is more in line with the rationale that the decree was a subtle and indirect solution to their fears. 

But comparing the verses in the parsha makes it clear that the decree was only directed at the Hebrews in the beginning, with the midwives. By the second stage, the decree to throw all baby boys into the Nile, the directive applied to all baby boys - including Egyptian males. Verse 16 states: He said, ‘When you birth the Hebrew women and you see on the birthstone-if he is a boy then you should kill him and if it is a girl, let her live.” But in verse 22 the Hebrews are not specified as it says: Pharaoh ordered his entire nation saying, ‘Every boy that is born cast into the Nile, and every girl let her live.’ This difference was pointed out in the gemara: 

Rabbi Y. bar Rabbi Chanina said: He decreed three decrees. At first- if he is a boy kill him. In the end- every boy that is born cast into the Nile. In the end- he even decreed against his people. (Sotah 12a) [1] 

There are additional differences between the two decrees. The first, directed at the midwives, intended to hide the scheme by killing the boys when they were born and make it seem like a stillbirth. The second decree, to throw the children to the Nile, is overt mass execution. The second decree was commanded to everyone while the first was a secret message to the midwives. It’s clear that there is a good reason the initial decree was covert. Rabbeinu Bechaye explains:

 It is known that if he wanted to command to kill them all at once he could have, but since it is a huge betrayal of his faith for a king to kill his people who have come to live in his land, and this king would be a disgrace amongst the nations, he did not want to kill them publicly but wanted to be smarter than them and destroy them in secret so they would not know of the injustice done to them. (Rabbeinu Bechaye, ibid) 

So what happened that caused Pharaoh to publicly declare the execution of all male children? The midrash offers an explanation: 

‘If he is a boy…’ (Shmot 1) Why did they do this? His astrologers told him that on this day a redeemer would be born to Israel and we do not know if he is Egyptian of from Israel. (Midrash Tanchuma Vayakhel 4) 

If so then this decree is the last in a line of attempts to try and avoid a rebellion and the redemption of Israel. But in this case Pharaoh understood that the salvation of the People of Israel does not depend on the strength of their numbers or the slave mentality he implanted in them. Rather an external power will come and take them out of Egypt even if they are few and even if they are exhausted. Pharaoh believed that this threat could “sell” the new strategy to the Egyptians- a temporary emergency plan that will save them from was. (see the continuation of the Tanchuma)

In this case Pharaoh mobilizes the individuals for the good of the community, making it  norm to sacrifice individual needs for the greater good of the public, Pharaoh shows his obsession with his rule by regulating birth, by declaring when people have the right to have children, and by a careful selection of the offspring. Pharaoh’s ingenuity is that he intervenes in what are normally simple and natural processes, ones that are often out of man’s hands. One could look to attempts to limit births in Germany, or what is being done today in China, in order to understand this type of government that acts in this manner and its consequences. It leads to people pushing off getting married, less fulfilling marriages, controlling their childbearing, extra financial and social stresses, and fear of the government. This type of rule touches a very basic part of a person: their desire for a large, unrestricted family, a happy brood of children. And when this desire is regulated it freezes the most basic social structure a person has and turns it into a tool for the welfare of the greater public. 

This tragic deterioration, as ridiculously pretentious as it may be, is apt to be felt by any one of us at certain times. Behind this monstrous machine there are “religious” and human motivations that force us to look inside ourselves. After all, what we have here is human sin, and when we explore its foundations we find that it comes from natural urges that may also exist inside us. We are obligated to find this tragic place that is willing to invest so much in one ideal that it allows for the bloodshed of anyone who stands in the way of its realization. This is true for ideals, but it is also true on a personal level. Each one of us is capable of slipping into a place where we can only see weaknesses around us, instead of sources of strength, and uproot culture and fertility and creativity to attain power and strength. This internal aspect is the Egyptian aspect from which we must redeem ourselves. 

Translated from the Hebrew by Debbie Zimmerman



[1] The three stages are unclear and the commentaries argue over what they are.

Sat, March 24 2018 8 Nisan 5778