Pharaoh first accuses the Israelites of becoming too numerous, then sets fiscal oppressors (sarei misim) over them, and only after that does he choreograph a policy of murdering male Israelite infants. Each pharaonic gesture represents the increased embitterment of Israelite lives. How may we better understand this subtle descent to enslavement?
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains:The first taxes (misim) they had to pay as citizens are mentioned in Exodus 1:14. The Israelites still retained their rights, but had to pay for their right to protection by special levy of a labor-tax . . After that, they were degraded to slaves: creatures without any right of appeal or redress for any wrongs committed against them. It no longer says that “Pharaoh oppressed them” but states that the “Egyptians oppressed them.” In other words, the people received the right to treat them as slaves. Then the third degree was added, that the Egyptians “embittered” their lives . . . The root and beginning of this indescribable maltreatment was strangeness (gerut), the supposed lack of rights as a foreigner. That is why the laws of Torah concerning the rights of foreigners offer the profoundest contrast to all other national laws up to this very day . . . The degree of justice in a land is measured not so much by the rights accorded to the native-born inhabitants, to the rich, or people who have representatives looking after their interests, but by what justice is meted out to the completely unprotected “stranger.” (Hirsch, Commentary on the Torah: Exodus, 9)
As Jews in the Diaspora and in Israel, we must never forget the historical lesson of Egypt rooted in this week’s parashah. May we all internalize Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s teaching: “The degree of justice in a land is measured . . . by what justice is meted out to the completely unprotected ‘stranger.’”
*Source: A Commentary by Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, director of Israel Programs, JTS
Posted by Linda Blatchford