At first glance this is puzzling, since the actual bondage did not commence until almost eighty years later, when the last of Jacob’s sons died. So what is the deeper meaning of this teaching?
Our sages explain that one of the reasons why spaces are left between sections is to invite us to meditate on the preceding verses. But the very fact that there is no break between these two portions indicates that the children of Jacob did not fully grasp the import of the last words of Vayigash, “Israel settled in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen and were fruitful and acquired property.” The Hebrew words for “acquired property” – “vaye’achazu” – mean much more than simply buying real estate. They connote taking possession of the land, becoming part of the culture and assimilating.
Assimilation was the first step toward bondage – a reality to which the Jews in Egypt were blind.
Now we can understand why the Torah teaches us that our bondage commenced with the death of Jacob. As long as he was alive our people stayed in their own environment, in their unique Jewish community, but after his demise they “took possession of the land,” buying homes and real estate throughout the country. The Book of Exodus opens with this new reality: “The children of Israel were fruitful and multiplied. They prospered very much and the land was filled with them.”
Jews became a vital force in every segment of Egyptian society, and our sages explain that this included whatever form of entertainment was popular in those days. This acculturation – assimilation – was paralleled by a total change in government: “A new Pharaoh arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). But how could that be? Can a president of the United States claim he doesn’t know who preceded him? Could the new Pharaoh not have known Joseph?
Once again our sages shed illumination. Pharaoh did not want to know Joseph. He abolished the laws that Joseph enacted, denied Egypt’s indebtedness to Joseph and his family, and accused them of exploitation and sabotage.
Overnight, Pharaoh demonized the Jewish contributions that had helped transform a famine-plagued country into a great and prosperous empire. He accused the Jews of being a fifth column that threatened the very survival of Egypt. He levied special taxes on them and commanded that they build cities for the welfare of the state; he cast them into slave labor camps and broke their bodies under the weight of excruciating labor; and he crushed their spirit with meaningless, futile tasks. And then he ordered that every male child be killed at birth (Exodus 1:10-7).
Does it sound familiar? Do you recognize 20th-century Europe? Do you see parallels to the Holocaust? And do you see similar winds blowing today?
(To be continued)