The first chapter of Sefer Shemot contains an important lesson for society: Evil can be perpetrated more easily by a group than by an individual. The chapter sounds this warning: The evil of a decree doesn’t keep people from obeying it. To the contrary, a blanket permission to be evil is a lot easier to implement than one single point of evil. Moreover, an all-encompassing license is, by its very nature, difficult to control once it is released. On top of that, it often returns to visit itself on the people who unleashed it.
Chapter one opens by listing the names of the people who came down to Egypt. No groups or tribes, no numbers, initially just names: “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah… etc.” (Exodus 1:1-2).
However, as the chapter proceeds we see a shift in the way that the Israelites (Benei Yisrael) are described: at first listed individually and by name, but soon Benei Yisrael become like a swarm and subsumed by the group identity. The individual unique characteristics become general, their attributes consumed by the group identity: “But the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them (v.7).
This shift in how Benei Yisrael are described is also a foreshadowing of the disintegration of the Israelites relationship with the Egyptians: As Benei Yisrael grow in numbers, they are treated with more alienation—“A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph (v. 8).” With alienation and foreignness come fear, stereotypes, generalizations and imaginations of danger and war: “And he said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground” (vv. 9-10).
Along with, or perhaps on account of, this growing sense of alienation and paranoia come attempts to create boundaries and distinctions: “So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor; and they built garrison cities for Pharaoh: Pithom and Raamses (v. 11).” Clearly, these differentiating limitations and restrictions are not of the “separate, but equal” kind (if that is at all possible). Rather they are designed to be a type of harmful discrimination.
The description of a very rough attitude towards those who are thought of as “other” and as threats becomes even worse: “The Egyptians ruthlessly imposed upon the Israelites” (v. 13). So the present chapter emphasizes that foreignness, alienation, and lack of recognition can lead to fear. And fear can lead to discrimination and harsh treatment.
These opening verses introduce us to Pharaoh’s fear and the way in which that fear is inextricably tied to, and is the root of, his evil actions, by placing Pharaoh’s fear and his cruelty side by side. This structure testifies to a general human tendency—fear is likely to cause, to incite, to be a means through which one can justify evil: “Ruthlessly they made life bitter for them with harsh labor and mortar and bricks and with all sorts of tasks in the field” (v. 14).
Not only this, but the evil that comes from fear has a tendency to be extreme. So, in the eye of the fearful beholder, even someone who is not threatening can wear Satan’s mask, even someone who is totally helpless can seem monstrous and destructing. He can be perceived as the cause of extreme danger so long as he is part of the group being feared. This is how we find ourselves moved, as if it were completely natural and inevitable, to the next stage of the story where the King of Egypt goes so far as to command the murder of day-old children: “The king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, saying, ‘When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live’” (vv. 15-16). Evil that operates through fear is very hard to stop in part because it’s hard to recognize that evil for what it is. It presents itself as justified, even when it is actually extreme and absurd.
There is something that inspired the midwives to behave differently. They remain aware of what truth and what righteousness are. They fear God instead of fearing Pharaoh, instead of fearing what Pharaoh himself fears. It seems like these midwives can break through the clouds of panic and fear that surround them and shine a light on what it means to recognize the other, to be responsible, to behave justly: “The midwives feared God” (v. 17). We don’t exactly know what divine conditions moved the midwives—the verses are not specific and don’t fully address the question of what constitutes “fear of God” for them. However, what the verses do make clear is that this fear of God is what brought them to choose differently: “They did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live (v. 17).”
The plans of the King of Egypt have been waylaid. And perhaps out of a blinding fear, he reached out to all of his people, not just the specialized class of birthing professionals. Now every single Egyptian will be involved, and the summons to evil is absolute and all-encompassing: “Then Pharaoh charged all his people, saying, ‘Every boy that is born you shall throw into the Nile, but let every girl live’” (v. 22). Implementation moves from the individuals in the private realm, the midwives, to the entire society at large functioning in the public sphere.
The following midrash, with its characteristic sensitivity, is aware of the fact that the object of the evil plan is not well-defined in the verse. Quite the opposite, it is described in a very general sense: “Every boy.” It is perhaps out of this sensitivity that R. Yose b. R. Hanina outlines the gradual development of Pharaoh’s plan in three stages:
Talmud Bavli Sotah 12a
And R. Yose b. R. Hanina said: He enacted three decrees. At first—“if it is a boy, kill him”, then—“every boy that is born you shall throw into the Nile”, and finally he even decreed about his own people.
This midrash raises an almost unbelievable possibility, one that would not come to mind were it not written and stated directly. At the first stage, Pharaoh commanded the midwives to kill all the male children among the Israelites, as per the straightforward reading of the verses. After that, the king of Egypt commanded all of his subjects to kill all of the Israelite male children. But in the third stage, Pharaoh’s decree becomes “all boys,” meaning that he commanded the massacre of all male children, including those among his own people. What the midrash says is quite simple—evil is a destructive phenomenon, it has no boundaries and no restrictions, and once it is unleashed the havoc it wreaks is not bound by reason, and it won’t be stopped by any obstacle.
Chapter one of the Book of Shemot shows us how easy it is for fear to blind, how swift is the move from fear to evil and debasement. How steep the decline is from panic to an evil that has no logic and sustains no meaning. The opening of the Book of Shemot is a warning sign stating that evil prevents you from thinking straight! So much so that even when evil has a specific direction in which its heading, it can easily forget its target and hit anything and everything in its path. Even innocent children, the Egyptians’ own.
We can hear the opening of Shemot as a warning. Even when evil seems justified, it is not right. May we find ways to stop the evil around us even when we find ourselves in times of great fear, and find within ourselves something of the midwives’ power. And if we aren’t quite able to be them, let us know to listen to the voices of those in our society who behave like them, and may fear not silence, capitulate or paralyze us.