7.3. The Jews Scatter Throughout Egypt (5:5-12)

 (5) And Pharaoh continued, “The people of the land are already so numerous, and you would have them cease from their labors!”

(6) That same day Pharaoh charged the taskmasters and foremen of the people, saying,

(7) “You shall no longer provide the people with straw for making bricks as heretofore; let them go and gather straw for themselves.

(8) But impose upon them the same quota of bricks as they have been making heretofore; do not reduce it, for they are shirkers; that is why they cry, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to our God!’

(9) Let heavier work be laid upon the men; let them keep at it and not pay attention to deceitful promises.”

(10) So the taskmasters and foremen of the people went out and said to the people, “Thus says Pharaoh: I will not give you any straw.

(11) You must go and get the straw yourselves wherever you can find it; but there shall be no decrease whatever in your work.”

(12) Then the people scattered throughout the land of Egypt to gather stubble for straw.

(5) And Pharaoh continued, “The people of the land are already so numerous, and you would have them cease from their labors!”: Pharaoh sees the Jews as just a component of the larger Egyptian nation. And, apparently, this was also the self-perception of a large segment of the Jews themselves.

(6) That same day Pharaoh charged the taskmasters and foremen: Pharaoh acts according to his own logic: the ferment that has begun must be suppressed, best accomplished by overloading the people with work such that they will have no time or energy for anything else. Pharaoh rules Egypt autocratically. By all appearances he is in full control of the situation and his instructions are reasonable.

In reality, however, Pharaoh’s actions occasion a completely unforeseen result: (1) The intensification of oppression dissuades even high-ranking, loyal Jews from their fealty to Egypt, and prepares the ground for just the right moment when all the people will be ready to break from Egypt psychologically, and to leave it physically; (2) The Jews are now widely scattered throughout all of Egypt, which is essential for imbuing them with an enhanced appreciation of the achievements of Egyptian civilization. This is an important element in preparing them for the Exodus (see §12.2).

The taskmasters and foremen of the people: The taskmasters are the Egyptian overseers, and the foremen are the Jewish superintendents, who occupy a supervisory position among the people.

This group is apparently associated with the “elders” mentioned earlier, who at the first stage refused to support Moses. From this we can infer that the Jewish elite in Egypt enjoyed a relatively privileged status, and at first had no interest whatsoever in the Exodus. This group was forced to change its attitude only when, as events turned out, the oppression began to affect them as well. All this served as a foundation for consolidating the people, a prerequisite for a successful Exodus.

(10) So the taskmasters and foremen of the people went out and said to the people: They did so after their meeting with Pharaoh. The fact that they had been invited to an exclusive audience with Pharaoh was a clear sign that he was seriously concerned.

(12) Then the people scattered throughout the land of Egypt: This was an important (and unplanned) consequence of the measures that Pharaoh had taken. Although the Torah told us previously that “the land was filled with them” (1:7), the bulk of the Jews continued to live in Egypt’s “Pale of Settlement,” in Goshen. The requirement that the Jews now collect their own straw led to their being scattered throughout Egypt. This step was a necessary prerequisite for the Exodus, because the Jews, before their departure, had to extract sparks of holiness[1] from all of Egypt, and not only from the land of Goshen.

If the objective in a given era is to preserve the Jewish people in exile, then it is better for them to live apart from the general population, away from the capital, in small towns. But for the purpose of “extracting worldly sparks from the exile” it is necessary that, on the contrary, the Jews will settle in all the big cities and actively participate in the life of their country. Paradoxically, then, the walls of the ghetto must collapse shortly before the Exodus in order that the Jews will spread throughout the country and assimilate its achievements for further application in their own lives.

Something similar happened during the creation of the modern State of Israel. For the nearly two thousand years of their exile, the Jews had lived apart from the surrounding nations. And then, only in the final century and a half, before the need for the Jews to leave Europe was ripe (and beginning with the French Revolution), the walls of the ghetto and the “Pale of Settlement” disintegrated everywhere, and the Jews began to participate in the life of their countries of residence.

This was an historical necessity for creating the future State of Israel. It was essential that the Jews would bring European culture – science, public administration skills, and so on – to the country they were about to resurrect. There is no way the Jews could have brought all that directly from their small villages and ghettos. Moreover, when a person is raised not on the periphery, but in the center of life, where everything seethes and is in constant motion, he sees the world in a completely different way[2].

The Jews in Egypt before the Exodus underwent a similar process. In order to ensure the Jews’ preservation as a distinct group, it was originally important for them to be living in the land of Goshen, apart from the Egyptians. But when the time for the Exodus drew near, Providence arranged for the Jews to disperse throughout the country, because they had to master Egypt’s achievements in order to be capable later of building their own state.

[1] “Extracting sparks of holiness from ordinary, everyday life” is a classic concept of Jewish mysticism, holistically treated in the Lurianic Kabbalah.

[2] It is interesting to note that the Gaon of Vilna, whose Kabbalistic teachings serve as one of the foundation of contemporary religious Zionism, stated as early as the eighteenth century that “the era of Mashiach ben Yosef has already begun” (by which he meant the preparatory stage leading to the creation of the Jewish State).


Bible Dynamics, VOL. 2. EXODUS Copyright © by Orot Yerushalaim / P. Polonsky / English translation of the Torah by the Jewish Publication Society, New JPS Translation, 1985. With sincere gratitude for the permission to use. All Rights Reserved.

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