This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi David Fried
At the beginning of Parshat Shmot, describing the enslavement of the Jewish people in Egypt, the Torah states (Shmot 1:13):
וַיַּעֲבִדוּ מִצְרַיִם אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּפָרֶךְ
Egypt enslaved the children of Israel with parech.
The word parech is usually translated as some kind of very difficult, or perhaps even unproductive, labor. However, in the Gemara Sota 11b, Rabbi Elazar says we should interpret the word as פה רך—a soft mouth, which Rashi explains means that they initially drew them into the labor with kind words until they were accustomed to it. The Midrash Tanchuma (B’ha’alotecha 13) elaborates on this idea by saying that at first Pharaoh and all the Egyptians took up the baskets and shovels themselves, and when the Jewish people saw all of the Egyptians participating they eagerly joined in as well.
On the surface, one could analyze what point this Midrash is trying to make. Were the Jews too eager to be seen as “real” Egyptians? Were they afraid of being seen as outsiders if they did not participate? I would like to start the analysis with a different question: where in the text is this interpretation coming from? Rabbi Elazar’s read of פרך as פה רך is a clever hook for this Midrash, but is clearly not the simple meaning of the word. Like many Midrashim, a real appreciation of where it comes from requires a much broader study of the text. And like many Midrashim on the beginning of Shmot, I believe the source for this Midrash is in Sefer Breishit.
Back in Parshat Vayigash, we are told about how Yosef stored up grain in Egypt during the years of plenty, and then sold it to them during the years of famine, in order to keep everyone alive. At some point, though, the people run out of money. In chapter 47 of Breishit, the Torah tells us:
יט לָמָּה נָמוּת לְעֵינֶיךָ גַּם אֲנַחְנוּ גַּם אַדְמָתֵנוּ קְנֵה אֹתָנוּ וְאֶת אַדְמָתֵנוּ בַּלָּחֶם וְנִהְיֶה אֲנַחְנוּ וְאַדְמָתֵנוּ עֲבָדִים לְפַרְעֹה וְתֶן זֶרַע וְנִחְיֶה וְלֹא נָמוּת וְהָאֲדָמָה לֹא תֵשָׁם
כ וַיִּקֶן יוֹסֵף אֶת כָּל אַדְמַת מִצְרַיִם לְפַרְעֹה כִּי מָכְרוּ מִצְרַיִם אִישׁ שָׂדֵהוּ כִּי חָזַק עֲלֵהֶם הָרָעָב וַתְּהִי הָאָרֶץ לְפַרְעֹה
כא וְאֶת הָעָם הֶעֱבִיר אֹתוֹ לֶעָרִים מִקְצֵה גְבוּל מִצְרַיִם וְעַד קָצֵהוּ
כב רַק אַדְמַת הַכֹּהֲנִים לֹא קָנָה כִּי חֹק לַכֹּהֲנִים מֵאֵת פַּרְעֹה וְאָכְלוּ אֶת חֻקָּם אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לָהֶם פַּרְעֹה עַל כֵּן לֹא מָכְרוּ אֶת אַדְמָתָם
כג וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף אֶל הָעָם הֵן קָנִיתִי אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם וְאֶת אַדְמַתְכֶם לְפַרְעֹה הֵא לָכֶם זֶרַע וּזְרַעְתֶּם אֶת הָאֲדָמָה
כד וְהָיָה בַּתְּבוּאֹת וּנְתַתֶּם חֲמִישִׁית לְפַרְעֹה וְאַרְבַּע הַיָּדֹת יִהְיֶה לָכֶם לְזֶרַע הַשָּׂדֶה וּלְאָכְלְכֶם וְלַאֲשֶׁר בְּבָתֵּיכֶם וְלֶאֱכֹל לְטַפְּכֶם
כה וַיֹּאמְרוּ הֶחֱיִתָנוּ נִמְצָא חֵן בְּעֵינֵי אֲדֹנִי וְהָיִינוּ עֲבָדִים לְפַרְעֹה
כו וַיָּשֶׂם אֹתָהּ יוֹסֵף לְחֹק עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה עַל אַדְמַת מִצְרַיִם לְפַרְעֹה לַחֹמֶשׁ רַק אַדְמַת הַכֹּהֲנִים לְבַדָּם לֹא הָיְתָה לְפַרְעֹה
19Let us not perish before your eyes, both we and our land. Take us and our land in exchange for bread, and we with our land will be slaves to Pharaoh; provide the seed, that we may live and not die, and that the land may not become a waste.”
20So Joseph gained possession of all the farm land of Egypt for Pharaoh, every Egyptian having sold his field because the famine was too much for them; thus the land passed over to Pharaoh. 21And he removed the population town by town, from one end of Egypt’s border to the other. 22Only the land of the priests he did not take over, for the priests had an allotment from Pharaoh, and they lived off the allotment which Pharaoh had made to them; therefore they did not sell their land.
23Then Joseph said to the people, “Whereas I have this day acquired you and your land for Pharaoh, here is seed for you to sow the land. 24And when harvest comes, you shall give one-fifth to Pharaoh, and four-fifths shall be yours as seed for the fields and as food for you and those in your households, and as nourishment for your children.” 25And they said, “You have saved our lives! We are grateful to my lord, and we shall be slaves to Pharaoh.” 26And Joseph made it into a land law in Egypt, which is still valid to this day, that a fifth should be Pharaoh’s; only the land of the priests did not become Pharaoh’s. (New JPS translation, slightly modified)
Just a generation earlier, Yosef had made the entire population of Egypt “slaves to Pharaoh.” The Midrash is highlighting that in order to convince the Jewish people to be slaves to Pharaoh, all they had to do was point to the fact everyone in Egypt was already slaves to Pharaoh, so why should they be any different? (I believe this is also the source for the Midrash that the tribe of Levi was never enslaved—the Egyptian Priests were never enslaved to Pharaoh as we saw in the verses quoted above, and the idea was that the Jewish slavery was just a matter of convincing the Jews to accept the same arrangement as the rest of the Egyptians.)
As to the ultimate message of this Midrash, we can only speculate. Perhaps it is intending to criticize Yosef’s policy of making all of the Egyptians slaves to Pharaoh. Perhaps that policy was necessary as an emergency measure during the famine and had outlived its usefulness but the Jews were afraid to criticize it for fear of being seen as outsiders or having their Egyptian patriotism questioned. What we can say for sure is that this Midrash teaches us that a deeper, richer, conversation about Sefer Shmot can be had when we learn it side by side with Sefer Breishit.
Rabbi David Fried (SBM 2010) is a musmakh of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and teaches Judaics at the Hebrew High School of New England in West Hartford, CT.