We tell ourselves Gd decreed the troubles of Egypt, having told Avraham his descendants would be strangers in a land not theirs, enslaved, oppressed, then redeemed with great wealth. Seems clear, the Jews powerless victims. Research for my book about Pesah, As If We Were There, taught me traditional commentators did not see it that way, they pointed out choices the people made, better paths they could have trodden.
For a well-known example, while Gd said the time of exile would last four hundred years, Rashi assumes those years started with Yitzhak’s birth. Akeydat Yitzhak and others say that was a later decision, a retroactive way for Gd to redeem the Jews early. Apparently, this divine degree was malleable, open to reinterpretation in ways more or less comfortable for the Jews; Ramban, for example, thinks the Jews were left in Egypt longer than four hundred years, because they did not deserve redemption when the time came.
Parshat Shemot presents an example I fear resonates today, the advent of the slavery itself. Sotah 11a quotes R. Elazar, who thought the word be-farekh, the adjective in the Torah for how the Egyptians made the Jews work, should be interpreted as if it read be-feh rakh, with soft speech, started it as a tax of human labor (as Shlomo HaMelekh did to build the Beit Ha-Mikdash, Ramban notes). Par’oh started with a reasonable tax, gradually upped it to full-fledged slavery.
A tradition from the house of R. Elazar b. R. Shim’on (also Sotah 11a) suggests they lured the Jews by having Par’oh work that first day. Any objections or demurrals the Jews might have offered were forestalled, because they could not claim to be less obligated to work than Par’oh. Once they were in, Par’oh never showed again, and they were stuck. (I remember a claim—I can’t find it now—the Jews went out of their way to work hard that first day, to show their civic spirit, only to have the Egyptians make the first day’s production their baseline quota.)
Par’oh or no, Hizkuni for one thinks the Jews still could have chosen differently. He notes the tradition the Levi’im avoided the slavery. Some commentators, such as Maharal, attribute it to Par’oh’s decision to treat them similarly to his priests, exempting them as religious functionaries. Hizkuni instead credits the Levi’im themselves. Mindful of Ya’akov’s having excluded them from carrying his bier because they would one day carry the Aron (Ark of the Covenant for Raiders fans), they stayed away from that first day, and were never roped in. In his view, the tax had a voluntary element to it, only those who wished to show their patriotic fervor included.
For a certain strand of thought, despite the decree, the Jews could have avoided being enslaved by the Egyptians at this point.
Sforno makes it worse. He suggests, 1;11, the Egyptians goal was to instigate the Jews to leave, to go back to Canaan. He reads Par’oh to have argued for a strategy to produce “ve-alah min ha-aretz, they will leave the land.” Were the Jews to stay, they might join an invader; make their lives miserable, they would leave of their own volition, Sforno thinks he advised.
Instead, the Jews stuck it out, accepted all burdens the Egyptians placed on them. (Eventually it changed, of course; I am noting it started with the Jews’ insistence on staying.)
I come back to the idea because it reminds us we can become so certain we know the path to take, we fight for that which is not in our best interests. Despite seeing the Levi’im eschew the labor, despite Ya’akov’s having said they were not there to become entrenched, the Jews became so attached to Egypt, they willingly—for this strand of how to read the text—joined what transformed into centuries of slavery.
We can sidestep the issue by preferring the other view, Par’oh forced them into the slavery, there was nothing they could do to avoid it, and so on. We’ll never know the actual events of Egypt, but I think Jewish history unfortunately does show cases where Jews determined to be fully accepted into a particular society, went above and beyond the call of civic duty to show their dedication to that society, and had it backfire in mistreatment.
A cautionary tale indeed.