Tuesday, 29 Dec 2015

Written by Adam Frankenberg

‘And Joseph died, and all his brothers and all that generation. But the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly so that the land was filled with them.’ (Exodus 1:6-7)

The Book of Genesis ended, in Parashat Vayechi with the death of Jacob and his burial back in the Land of Canaan, and right at its close we read about Joseph’s final words to his brothers and his prediction that God would remember the Israelites and bring them up out of Egypt to the Land of Israel. The last verse informs us that Joseph died at the age of one hundred and ten and that he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt. 

The opening of the Book of Exodus reminds me, maybe just because it is topical, of the opening screen crawl of the Star Wars films, which fills in the back story.  After the opening line, ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far far away’ the now famous yellow text starts to move up the screen informing or refreshing the viewers’ memory of what has happened and where we are in the story.

Similarly the Book of Exodus starts by listing the names of the Children of Israel who had come down to Egypt.  And reminding us that Joseph and all his brothers had also died, before going on to recount how the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites. 

Two of the great classical commentators dispute what the meaning of ‘and all that generation died’ is; Rashbam (Rabbi Samuel ben Meir 1085-1158) says it means the seventy people listed as coming down to Egypt, whereas Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra 1089-1167) thinks that it means that all that particular generation of the Egyptians. 

Ibn Ezra was born in Spain but spent much of the latter part of his life traveling from place to place (including, according to some, coming here to London) and it was during this period that much of his work, including his commentary on the Torah, was written, in his comments he often focused on detailed points of grammar although he was not afraid of being controversial.

Rashbam, the grandson of Rashi and son of Yochaved (Rashi’s daughter) and Rabbi Meir, focuses his commentary almost exclusively on the plain (grammatical) meaning of the Torah (although with a few insights from the midrashim).

In either case, according to both these views either because the whole generation of Egyptians died or all the people who had come down to Egypt with Jacob, a new king arose over Egypt, who did not remember Joseph and he, and the people of Egypt as a whole are worried because of the increased numbers of Israelites and fear that in the event of a war they would fight against them and then go up out of the land. To prevent that happening Pharaoh and his people started the process whereby the Israelites would become enslaved and inadvertently set in train the very course of events that would lead the outcome which they, apparently, feared. Namely that at a time of trouble the Israelites would go up out of the land, indeed throughout the coming chapters the Egyptians seem to be in the grip of two contradictory concerns one focused on the numbers of Israelites in Egypt and the other on the possibility that the Israelites might leave.

To me it is Ibn Ezra’s explanation, that all that generation of Egyptians had died which is the more persuasive, all the Egyptians who had been personally saved by Joseph had died and all that would have been remembered, by the people at large, is how Joseph had engineered the situation to enhance the power or the ruler and to make the people more subservient. Additionally the descendants of the people who the ordinary folk might have felt were responsible for their situation appear to be doing very well. They are ‘increasing greatly’.

In a modern context it is not that unusual for migrant populations to be encouraged to come to a country and to settle there, for an already existing community to turn against them after they have become successful.

In the space between the conclusion of Genesis and the opening of Exodus Jacob’s children have gone from being the family of Israel to the Israelites. So much so that the Egyptians became fearful of what might happen.

It was from the actions the Egyptians set in train because of their fear that would cause Moses to emerge as a leader of the people of Israel and it would be he who would indeed bring destruction to Egypt and the Egyptians and lead the Israelites out of the land.

Actions taken out of fear rarely have positive outcomes, I am reminded of a line from one of my favourite science fiction novels, Dune. ‘Fear is the mind killer’, actions taken without thought, whether as individuals or at a collective level are often destructive. That is not to say that situations that we may find ourselves in, either collectively or as individuals, are not frightening, they might very well be. However, by stepping beyond fear any actions we do take are more likely to be considered and consequentially more effective.

Rabbi Adam Frankenberg ordained LBC 2015

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.