The Egyptians enslaved the B’nai Yisrael with crushing harshness.” [2]

 Why’d they do that?

Prior verses in this chapter of Sh’moth describe the rise of a pharaoh, now believed to be of Hyksos lineage, who “didn’t know Yosef.” This pharaoh riled up the population against the B’nai Yisrael, describing them (as demagogues often do) as what we’d call today a potential “5th column” threat.

Enslaving the B’nai Yisrael expressed a deep hatred of them. But – weren’t the B’nai Yisrael the relatives of Yosef, who had saved an entire earlier generation of Egyptians from starvation? If he hadn’t done that, there wouldn’t have been many Egyptians left alive.

The difficulty, then, is: Why were the Egyptians so angry, so willing to be riled up against the B’nai Yisrael to the point of actually enslaving them “with crushing harshness”? 

An answer might lie in chapter 41 of sefer B’reishith, in which Yosef interprets pharaoh’s dreams as foretelling 7 years of agricultural abundance to be followed by 7 years of famine. He recommends that pharaoh buy all the excess food during the 7 “good” years, which can then be sold back during the 7 “bad” years — at a profit.

Pharaoh follows this suggestion, the result of which is that the Egyptian people eventually had to sell the titles to their own properties to pharaoh, in order to pay for food and remain alive. He becomes “landlord” to an entire country of indentured servants, who will never be able to buy their way out of servitude.

One might say that by making private use of information received from G-d – in secret – about future agricultural conditions, Yosef and pharaoh were complicit in a grand “insider trading” scheme, of a sort that even “free market” supporters (who could themselves become victims of such schemes) would reject. One can’t fault G-d in this, because although G-d gave pharaoh foreknowledge, Torah doesn’t say that Yosef’s advice came from a Divine source.

In addition, one can’t fault pharaoh!! Yosef might have received the interpretation of pharoah’s dreams by ruach ha-kodesh, but his advice as to what to do about the coming famine is all his own – and offered without being requested by pharaoh.

Thus, although Yosef had indeed preserved the physical lives of the Egyptians, he’d also caused them to be condemned to lives of servitude to pharaoh. Who wouldn’t be angry?

The world has had more than its fair share of a worship  that showed no respect for human life or dignity. Perhaps our model should more closely follow Albert Schweitzer’s “Reverence for Life” (“Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben”):

“I am life that wants to live, in the midst of life that wants to live.”

The rabbis, too, confirm this universalist viewpoint, when G-d faults the angels for singing and dancing at the drowning of the Egyptians: “My children are dying. Why are you singing?” 

Yosef recognized that he was “life that wants to live,” but failed to recognize that the Egyptians, in whose “midst” he was, were “life that wants to live” too. As a result, several generations later, the Egyptians responded by “turning the tables.”

If we can understand the intense desire for liberation that our “Israelite” ancestors felt, then kal v’homer, we should be able to empathize with the Egyptians for wanting the same thing.

The next step would be to extend the same empathy in all of our interactions — business, political, and personal –with others.

Maybe we can learn something from Yosef’s error.


[1] Reginald, Arthur; Joseph Interpreting the Pharaoh’s Dream; 1894
[2] Sh’moth/Ex. 1:13