DIVIDE AND CONQUER
Rabbi Shmuel Weiss
This week's Torah portion introduces us to two of the most important personalities in the Torah -- and probably in all of Jewish history: Pharaoh and Moses. While Moses is the paradigm of Jewish ethics, morality and faith, Pharaoh is the archetype of anti-Semitism and cruelty. Every positive movement in Jewish life bears the stamp of Moses; every wave of oppression can trace its lineage to Pharaoh.
Most casual readers of the Bible see Pharaoh's decision to enslave the Jews as financially-motivated; that he saw the Jewish people as a cheap source of labor to build grand edifices for his pleasure, from Pitom to the Pyramids.
But the truth is that Pharaoh was less concerned with building up Egypt's cities than he was with breaking down Israel's spirit. And so the sgaes tell us he had the Hebrew slaves construct "Arey Miskanot," literally, "pitiful cities." They were constructed in such a fashion that they would crumble to the ground soon after they were built, thus demoralizing the workers, who now could take no pride in their work, and had to start over again on what was clearly just "busy work."
What's more, our sages tell us, Pharaoh assigned back-breaking physical labor to the women, while giving domestic, maid-oriented chores to the men. This was psychological warfare designed to crush our souls.
Perhaps this will now help us solve another mystery of this week’s Torah portion. After Moses and Aaron demand freedom for the Jews, Pharaoh "counter-attacks" by ordering the slaves to not only meet their usual daily quota, but to collect their own straw, as well. He sets up a system of taskmasters and Jewish foremen, who will enforce the new law.
Clearly, this new system will almost surely result in less bricks being fashioned, and less productivity. But that does not really concern Pharaoh; he has a whole different agenda. Pharaoh understands that by creating two "classes" of Jews -- slaves and overseers, labor and management -- he will be able to foment strife and disunity among the Jewish people. The slave will resent another Jew telling him what to do; the overseer will look down on the common slave as "beneath" him in status and caste. It is the classic ploy of "divide and conquer."
But Pharaoh's plan is foiled. The overseers, though tortured, refuse to break ranks and turn on their fellow Jews. They will later become the nation's leaders, for they recognize this eternal truth: United, we Jews can never be vanquished.
Rabbi Shmuel Weiss, a close friend of the Torah from Dixie family, is the director of the Jewish Outreach Center in Rana’ana, Israel.
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