Parasha Shemot, Exodus 1:1—6:1
by Rabbi Eliyahu Ben Lewi
The book of Genesis concludes in a manner that is befitting for a classic literary novel. Its epic climax is one that underscores powerful lessons of redemption, reconciliation, and reunification. The recurring issue of family discord and estrangement is ended. The great patriarch, Jacob, whose life was replete with challenges and periods of displacement has come to a place of settlement and mental ease in the region of Goshen. He lived his last seventeen years with bliss and prestige. We are given an intimate look into his final moments on earth as he blessed his children by recalling their past and forecasting the attributes of their tribes. The Torah tells us that Jacob’s sons laid him to rest in accord with all their father’s directives.
In time, Joseph and his brothers expire. The family’s roots are strengthened in the land of Egypt. Living on the outskirts, they foster and maintain a delicate balance between relative Egyptian citizenry and sovereignty as a people. They were primed for an illustrious future in a foreign land. There appears to be no indication of the impending doom that would disrupt their life and interfere with their positive trajectory as an nascent people, excluding the last recorded words of Joseph… “I die; but G-D will surely remember you and bring you up out of this land unto the land that He swore to Abraham, Isaac and to Jacob (Genesis 50:24).”
Parasha Shemot relates the impetus for the transition of Jacob’s family from welcomed immigrants to a national threat in very few words.
וַיָּקָם מֶלֶךְ-חָדָשׁ, עַל-מִצְרָיִם, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדַע, אֶת-יוֹסֵף.
“And there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Yoseph (Exodus 1:8).”
The insertion of this verse denotes a transition, but from what? In the verses that immediately precede the statement about the change in Egyptian administration we learn of the proliferation of the Hebrews in the land of Egypt. The new Pharaoh notes not only an astounding increase in their census, but also that the numbers translated into greater economic power and social influence, which exceeded the borders of their designated portion of land-Goshen. In his angst, the ruler foments fear of the Hebrews among the Egyptians, asserting that they would be supporters of foreign forces in the event of a war and thus “get them up out of the land.” Although Pharaoh primarily expressed fear that the Hebrews would commit treason, perhaps his deepest concern was that they would not betray but leave Egypt. He regarded the Hebrew’s expansion and economic and industrious prowess as a clear indication of their ability to live in sovereignty. Thus, Pharaoh was found in a conundrum encountered by many rulers and the social hierarchy—how to not feel threatened when others exercise their personal right to thrive and exist in a land not considered to be their own. Unfortunately, the perceived advancements of those considered to be a part of the underclass was not always warmly received.
The early twentieth century was a time of great transition and a challenge to the prevailing socio-economic system in America. An entrepreneur named Gurly purchased 40 acres of land in Tulsa Oklahoma and decided to utilize the real estate to develop and facilitate Black businesses. His initiative was met with unprecedent success. Within a few decades the once baren and solitary area, known as the Greenwood district, was transformed into a burgeoning corporate district, which would later be dubbed “Black Wall Street’. The 35- block radius which spanned the district was filled with schools, hotels, banks, shops, theatres, physicians, lawyers, hospitals, pharmacies, and night clubs. It was an insulated nation within the nation. They maintained exceptional care of their finances. It is reported that within the confines of Black Wall Street a single dollar would change hands at least 19 times before leaving the community (Clark, A; 2019).
Many people seeking succor from the heat of Jim Crow came in droves to Black Wall Street. It was a beacon of light and hope. Many of its inhabitants, who were getting a taste of freedom and self-sufficiency, were the children or grandchildren of those who were forced into abject slavery on plantations. Their prosperity in such a short period of time incited jealousy and hatred. Author K. Fain in her article entitled The Devastation of Black Wall Street relates “Despite racial discrimination and Jim Crow segregation, the Greenwood district offered proof that black entrepreneurs could create vast wealth. Based on critical analysis of the events some considered this to be an economic threat.” The perceived threat was neutralized after a two-day massacre in 1921. Under the pretext that someone from the town committed a crime, a group of people stormed the district, murdering hundreds, and ruthlessly pillaged and burned down all the businesses. Many of its survivors were forced to move to other states that were extremely oppressive.
An immediate resort to direct violence and persecution is not the only method used to control. As Pharaoh declared, “Let us deal wisely with them (Exodus 1:9).” Part of his shrewdness was to implement Egyptian policies that would turn the Hebrews into enemies of the state and place them in a precarious situation through isolation, inflammatory rhetoric, and dangerous propaganda. We have not only witnessed this in Egypt and through Jim Crow, but also through the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 in Germany, which aimed to make its Jews second class citizens. These laws were instituted to villainize Jews and label them a threat, and to desensitize people to the horrific and unjust violence against them that was afoot. With a ruthless Pharaoh at the helm, and the stroke of a pen, the status of Jews in Germany radically changed and ushered in a massacre of more than six million Jews.
History reveals that no people is impervious to time, and that things can radically change with one administration. The hope is that we will find those in power who support, protect, and defend our ideals and right to exist. However, we at times discover that the casting of a vote is far more than an exercise of civic right or responsibility, but often the only defense against those who long for the days of yesteryear and to reestablish the old status quo. It is incumbent upon us to remain prudent and vigilant to sustain the hard-earned advancements of our forebears. We must take an immediate stand against the alarming increase of antisemitic crimes and all acts of discrimination and prejudice. We must consider, it’s not just the act, but the administration and public’s response or lack thereof, that holds the greatest implications of ensuing danger.
People like Pharaoh, Jim Crow, and Hitler seem to appear overnight; however, the truth is there is generally a process of increased apathy from the public that paves the way for such individuals to execute their murderous agendas. It is the transition of the government and its enforcement or wresting of just laws that in one term can march us in to a wonderful and blissful tomorrow or return us to the dreaded past.
Although Pharaoh may not always recognize and see us, it is imperative that we recognize and acknowledge him in every generation.
May the passage of time continue to hasten our redemption, increase our light, and diminish the darkness.