One brief verse of the Biblical narrative conveys Pharaoh’s nefarious decree to drown all newborn Israelite males in the Nile (Exodus 1:22). Yet the mechanism for fulfilling Pharaoh’s command remains a mystery. A network of spies and informants must have been essential to identify expectant mothers about to give birth and dispatch those charged with dispatching the babies. The officials that policed the Jewish community must have been considerable. But none of these are mentioned at all.
Further, the steps the Israelites must have taken to protect their offspring also go unmentioned. Surely no parent would readily surrender a child to an authority determined to kill him. Hence, readers can safely imagine that protective Israelite parents tried to hide their babies from the Egyptians. In fact, the Midrash (Seder Eliyahu Rabbah 7:43; Exodus Rabbah 22:1) asserts that this is precisely what the Israelites did. But the Egyptians were devilishly cunning.
According to Rabbi Yohanan of Sephoris, Egyptian women enlisted in the planned infanticide would take their own babies to the homes of Israelite women suspected of harboring male infants. The Egyptians then cruelly goaded their own children into crying. When the Israelite children heard the weeping of the Egyptian babies, they were moved to cry in sympathy, thus betraying their location. The Egyptians authorities would then seize the infants and take them out to their deaths.
The Midrash may not necessarily be factual but it does reveal a truth. The tyrants of the world, whether in the past or the present, demonstrate their own callousness and brutality by abusing their own children is pursuit of their evil ambitions. The Midrash further teaches that sympathy is one of the supreme qualities of the Jewish people. Even Israelite babies were endowed with this virtue. It may have cost infants their lives, but they could not remain silent in the face of the anguish of others – even potential enemies.
Jewish history is punctuated with instances of persecution. Yet the glory of the Jewish people is that Jews have never lost their humanity – a sense of compassion for others and a revulsion at the sight of the suffering of others whether friends or foes. It is this defining quality that remains a sign of strength, not weakness. It is a quality of which all Jews can rightfully be proud.