This week's Torah portion opens with the commandment that, once we enter the land of Israel, we bring our first fruits to the altar of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, accompanied by a song/speech to God which reminds us of our humble slave origins and expresses our gratitude to the Almighty. These poetic words are part of the Passover Haggada, where each phrase is explicated around the Seder table. But there is one phrase which remains difficult in context: "The Egyptians did evil unto us (vayare'u) and afflicted us..." Obviously, if they afflicted us, they did evil unto us. So what is the Bible saying?
Firstly, the Hebrew noun ra, or re'a, can mean evil, but it can also mean friend. In the beginning, the Egyptians acted in a friendly way toward us; they extended the hand of acceptance in effect, an acceptance which led to our assimilation, a Laban-like kiss of death.
"And the children of Israel grew fruitful, and swarmed, and multiplied and became very very mighty; the land became filled with them" (Exodus 1:7).
The description superficially seems to be one of growth, of positive development. But these verbs supply a very different image: to "swarm" implies to creep all over like detestable, impure reptiles, and to "fill the land" hints at excessive visibility, a palpable Jewish presence in every place of impurity, the equivalent of the discos and gambling parlors, bars and the red-light district. The Israelites were becoming more Egyptian than the Egyptians and such activities are the death-knell for Judaism, which demands a lifestyle of discipline and sanctity.
Remember that God entered into a covenant with Abraham which guaranteed that the Jews would never disappear from the world's stage. Hence, the historic rule of Judaism overseen by God is that either the Jews live as a special people, set apart by biblical values, laws and customs, or if, heaven forfend, the Jews forget their uniqueness and seem to be chasing assimilation and extinction, God will send a tyrant who will force them to be ghettoized, reviled and set apart. God will coerce us into remembering that we are Jews.
Thus in the very next verse, after the description of Jewish "Egyptianization," comes the following event: "And there rose up a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph" and who persecuted and demonized the Israelites (Exodus 1:8 ff.).
Vayare'u, the Egyptians first befriended us, causing us to assimilate, until God sent a tyrant to afflict us vaye'anunu thereby forcing us to remain a people apart.
An alternative and no less novel form of translating vayare'u is, "They caused us to be evil." How so? As Lord Acton famously said, "Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely." I would add, "And powerlessness corrupts worst of all!"
More than a decade ago, when visiting Australia on a lecture tour, I saw a play called The Edge of Night. The main plot dealt with a very accomplished daughter of a successful Holocaust survivor who is married to an ineffectual Jewish nerd and meets a suave and sophisticated Christian WASP who sweeps her off her feet. The sub-plot zeroed in on the complex persona of the Holocaust survivor, a businessman with unusual acumen whose noblesse oblige made him a generous philanthropist and a respected leader of the Jewish community of Melbourne. The son-in-law nerd, who assists his wife in his father-in-law's company, receives an anonymous letter with a picture from a concentration camp proving his father-in-law to have been a Kapo a Nazi collaborator who won favors by punishing his coreligionists.
The son-in-law, in the midst of a heated discussion with his father-in-law during a family Seder, suddenly hands the survivor the letter and picture. The patriarch crumbles before our eyes. Before leaving the Seder table, he brokenly says, "Do you think there were heroes in the concentration camp? There were no heroes. There were only two kinds of Jews: Those who survived and those who didn't survive."
Apparently when you're the underdog fighting for survival, you will attempt to survive by using any possible means! Powerlessness corrupts worst of all. The Egyptians caused us to be evil by enslaving us. Despite the basic truth of this insight, there are many personal and confirmed testimonies which demonstrate acts of Jewish humanity and even heroism during the most difficult of times. Witness the writings of Elie Wiesel, and The Diary of Anne Frank, as well as Fear No Evil by Natan Sharansky. But by and large, suffering is not to be idealized; it generally brings out the worst, and not the best, in human nature. Yes, "Vayare'u," the Egyptians caused us to act evilly when they afflicted us.
Tragically, the world was silent when we were the victims and the world condemns us when we attempt to defend ourselves as ethically as possible even when we build a fence to prevent attacks by suicide bombers. But we must remain true to our Jewish souls: We dare not become powerless victims once again, but we must continue to exercise power with the moral restraints that our Torah demands.
Ki Tavo, Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8, is read on September 24.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.