The labour of the Israelite slaves in Egypt was superintended by “sarei missim”, which the translators usually render “taskmasters” (Ex. 1:11). “Mas”, the singular of “missim”, is something imposed upon you by force. In modern Hebrew it conveys the idea of imposed taxation. Hence a better translation of “sarei missim” would be “overseers of labour gangs”.
Onkelos adds something additional about the overseers when he says they were “evil-doing”. The implication is not merely that they had to be harsh and cruel, but that they enjoyed it. It gave them devilish pleasure to see people suffer.
Unfortunately history has often placed the Jewish people under the yoke of oppressors who had no problem with suppressing their conscience in order to enjoy causing suffering and watching it. After the Holocaust, when Nazi officials sometimes claimed the defence of superior orders, i.e. that they were merely obeying a superior, the moral response suggested by the Torah was the same as it would have been in ancient Egypt,
“But why did you need to like it so much?”
Plus, of course, the question to which they had no answer,
“And why didn’t you have the moral courage in the first place to refuse to obey the orders, whatever your refusal would have cost you?”
THE NEW KING DIDN’T KNOW.
Exodus 1:8 says,
“There arose a new king over Egypt who knew not Joseph”.
The Talmud wonders how this can possibly be true. After all that Joseph had done for the country, surely his name would be recorded, remembered and honoured!
The view of the rabbis – followed by so many of the commentators – is that he did actually know about Joseph but pretended not to. What a sad reflection on human nature! No appreciation… Off the scene, soon forgotten… no gratitude to the national saviour once time has moved on!
Some scholars, however, find good grammatical reasons to support the literalist reading. What does the text say after all? “Vayakom melech chadash”, there arose a new king. We would have expected, “There was another king”, i.e. one king left the scene, his son took over. Ibn Ezra points out that “vayakom” indicates that the new king was an upstart outsider who jumped in and usurped the throne, beginning a new regime, a new dynasty, a clean sweep.
Probably he wasn’t even an Egyptian, and his seizing of power was the result of discontinuity, not continuity with the past. What had previously been had now gone for good, and Joseph with it. The new king “knew not Joseph”. He had no idea of Egyptian history and didn’t even care very much.
Sforno, on the other hand, says that the new Pharaoh probably did consult the national records and may well have found Joseph’s name there, but without realising Joseph’s connections with the Hebrew people. In other words, the new king knew of Joseph in theory, but did not know who this Joseph was or that he had Hebrew family.
TURNING HERE & THERE.
“When Moses was grown up, he went out to his brethren, and he saw an Egyptian attacking one of his brethren. He looked this way and that, and when he saw that there was no man, he attacked the Egyptian and hid him in the sand” (Ex. 2:11-12).
Why was there “no man”? Does it mean that no-one was looking? Adopting this view, Samson Raphael Hirsch says,
“He looked in all directions to be sure that he was unobserved and could dare to do the deed… He is far from that daring boldness which rushes without thinking into danger”.
The author of “HaK’tav V’haKabbalah” has a different opinion. To him, “He looked this way and that” means that he looked at the Israelites who were standing by in the expectation that one of them would come forward to help the victim, but “there was no man” – no-one had the courage to come forward and help.
In his “Ha’amek Davar”, the Natziv (Naftali Tzvi Y’hudah Berlin) sees the incident differently again. Why was the Egyptian attacking the Israelite? It seems to have been simply because he was a Jew. What did Moses do? “He looked this way and that”. He turned to this court and that, seeking a tribunal to which he could bring an appeal for justice. But Egyptian law was flawed. Members of a slave people had no legal rights or redress. The judges would not intervene. “There was no man”, and Moses felt he had to take the law into his own hands.
The Midrash comments that this is acceptable for the Almighty but not for a human being. In a passage with echoes of the Moses story, Isaiah says,
“The Lord looked, and it was evil in His eyes that there was no justice. He saw there was no man and was astonished that no-one intervened, so His own arm brought salvation” (Isa. 59:15-16).
When God later told Moses he was going to die, Moses complained.
“You, God, killed all the firstborn of Egypt; shall I die because of one Egyptian?”
God, however, retorted,
“How can You compare yourself to Me who both causes to die and restores to life?” (Midrash P’tirat Moshe).
Whatever the provocation, it is a grave sin to play God and take a human life.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.