The parasha that we read this week begins the book of Exodus. In it, we read what Pharaoh says at what we can imagine to be the beginning of his reign when we ‘arose and did not know Joseph. He says, 9 וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל־עַמּוֹ הִנְֵּה עַם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל רַב וְעָצוּם מִמֶּֽנּוּ: – “And he said unto his people, Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we.” It is a statement that begs to be interpreted.
After Joseph interpreted the previous Pharaoh’s dream of the seven lean years and the seven fat years, it was clear that he saved the Egyptian people from starvation. As a reward, the Jews under that first Pharaoh were not beholden to Pharaoh except as loyal subjects. We can imagine them walking freely around Egypt secure in the knowlege that they were protected and taken care of just as they had taken care of their Egyptian hosts. Yet, when the new Pharaoh arose, he did not pay heed to what they had done. In fact, he had a bad case of ‘what have you done for me lately?’
It is not surprising that Pharoah had this trait. In fact, most people have it and the farther you are from a positive event, the more likely you are to forget the people who made it happen. It is a question of what our sages call הכרת הטוב – the recognition of the good that someone has done. When people lose that, it is easy to turn the hero into a victim.
Jews see this all the time. In Europe today, Jews have formed the backbone of so much of European civilization and yet, unabashedly in places like England, Ireland, Germany, Ukraine and other countries, the Jews who are all good and productive citizens are turned into some kind of monsters by the government being accused of everything from blood libel to controlling the banks, the newspapers and generally making a mess of everything in the country. The idiocy of taking such a position is manifest but it seems built into the psyche of people who have to look outside themselves for someone to blame for all their troubles. So, they blame the Jews. Pharoah did it with ease and enslaved the Jews for 410 years. The Europeans are doing it today and one generation after the Holocaust, they are driving Jews out of their countries with their open hatred. It makes no sense but since when did such an illness make any sense?
But the story of Moses and the Exodus is not one of slavery. Slavery and bigotry arising from fear is just the beginning of the story. It is not the end. The end is Jewish self-determination and loss of fear. It is a story of finding the best in ourselves and forging our ways through the deserts where each day is another day to express הכרת הטוב – our gratefulness to our Sages and our Torah and God for the gifts that Jews have created throughout the ages. The rest of the world may ask what we have done for them lately and, when they get a different response than the one they want, they blatantly hate. Such is the world in too many hearts. But the Jewish heart strives to be better than that and so we will continue to shine light where it is dark, empower the slave to be free, change the world which is so badly broken. In time, we are taught, the world will one day thank the Jews for all they have done. Such a day would indeed be the beginning of the Messianic Era!