When we conclude the Book of Genesis this week in synagogue, the Israelites will have taken up residence in a most hospitable and welcoming country: Egypt. Invited there by Pharaoh himself, with the Hebrew Joseph as his viceroy, our people prospered financially and personally in the Kingdom of the Nile. If the Torah were to have ended here, we would have thought that the Jews had reached the Promised Land; but it does not, and we did not.
We know what comes next in the story. Only one chapter later, at the beginning of the Book of Exodus, we hear that there arose a new king over Egypt who did not know Joseph. That Pharaoh turned on our people, oppressed them and sought their destruction. The country that provided us with refuge in a time of famine, that welcomed our forefather Jacob and his family of seventy with open arms, and that extolled Joseph in gratitude for saving its citizens from crushing starvation—how could that very nation reverse course so abruptly and turn from love to hate? Our ancestors must have been flummoxed.
And yet, if we pay close attention to the story of the early years of the Israelites in Egypt, we find clues that indicate that all was not well, and that trouble was on its way.
When the brothers come down to Egypt to procure food, Joseph provides a meal for the wary travellers. In describing the eating arrangement, the Torah tells us:
They served Joseph by himself, the brothers by themselves, and the Egyptians who ate with him by themselves, because Egyptians could not eat with Hebrews, for that is detestable to Egyptians.
The Egyptians who worked in the palace refused to take their meal with the brothers because, we are told, Egyptians regarded eating with Hebrews as detestable. Declining to eat with people of another nationality or race is a tell-tale sign of hatred and xenophobia, and we see here that the Egyptians, despite their courteous actions, bore an underlying dislike for Israelites. Even more remarkable, the text suggests that the Egyptians refused even to eat with Joseph — the second highest ranking official in Egypt! — because he was a Hebrew. Joseph therefore ate alone: too important to eat with his brothers, but deemed not worthy of eating with the Egyptians.
When Jacob and his sons settle in Egypt, Pharaoh gives them the region of Goshen as a land holding. This is a double-edged sword: while it is beneficial to the Israelites to have a province of their own in which to live, this is only granted to them because they are shepherds and the Egyptians do not want to reside in their midst. Joseph explains to his family, “…you will be allowed to settle only in the region of Goshen, for all shepherds are detestable to the Egyptians.”
Acting as Minister of Agriculture, Joseph buys up the desperation properties of the Egyptian people when they are starving and can no longer afford to buy food stores from the government. Through these purchases Joseph saves the lives of the Egyptians and makes Pharaoh the owner of all farmland in his kingdom, but one can imagine that the Egyptians would have harboured a deep resentment toward the person who denuded them of their hereditary holdings. And it is likely that this bitterness would have extended to Joseph’s people as a whole.
Hindsight is, of course, much easier than foresight. While the Israelites were flourishing in Egypt it would have been difficult for them to see these acts of enmity and hate as anything more than isolated issues and events. And yet, we know how this play ended.
Too often in Jewish history we have looked back and seen the signs to which we should have been alert all along. More often than not, by the time we noticed, it was too late.
Recent events give us hope. On the one hand, we bemoan the shocking increase in antisemitic acts perpetrated around the world and, too close to home, here in North America. At the same time, we appear to have learned from our past experiences and no longer ignore the signs we see around us. In the United Kingdom last month, Jews and our allies bravely called out the warning signs they saw around them and prevented the ascendency of an anti-Jewish leader. And this past Monday, Jews around the world participated in #JewishandProud Day, rallying together for Jewish pride and against antisemitism.
George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Every day in our prayers we remember our sojourn in Egypt; continuously recalling that experience is our best hope, during these difficult days, for ensuring a better future for ourselves, our children, and the world.