The Route to Slavery – Shemot 5780

D'var Torah | Exodus

It is worth considering how a free and respected people could so easily be enslaved as were the Israelites in Egypt under a new Pharaoh. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch thought so. And he imagined a three-stage process with every step recorded in the text.


The first step was easy. Taxes were imposed (Exodus 1:11). While the burden of taxes is universally reviled, the need for taxes or the fact that taxes can suddenly be imposed is understood as a consequence of citizenship. Every country has a duty to ensure that its citizenry is served. And taxes are required to meet the needs of residents. For Israelites, paying taxes was a way of demonstrating their right to belong. After all, they were foreigners whose allegiance might very well be challenged. To dispel any charge that they are malingering outsiders, they would be eager to pay taxes. In the case of the Israelites taxes took the form of work. So Israelites submitted to a loss of some immediate freedom for the possibility of full acceptance.


Once this first imposition was installed, the burden was increased. They were afflicted with additional demands (Exodus 1:12). But even this was understandable, if not tolerable. Every government has the right to increase or decrease the tax burden as necessary. So it would not be surprising or alarming for the Israelites to learn that their labor was to increase. This, too, they would have accepted without worry.


Finally, Pharaoh imposed the full weight of Egyptian bondage (v. 13). But by this time, it was too late for the Israelites to object. Already subject to the regime of labor, it was impossible to extricate themselves. What begins as a patriotic commitment to an adopted country became enslavement in that country.


Hirsch highlights the cunning nature of Pharaoh’s plan hinted in the text but not fully developed. Hirsch also exposes how the potentially vulnerable miscalculate, putting themselves even more at risk in hopes of bettering their position. Even more importantly, Hirsch shows just how powerful a force inertia can be. Once a path is taken it is very difficult to change. This makes choosing the right path a necessity in life.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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