We usually think of Pharaoh as the main villain of the Exodus story, but rabbinic tradition (and, I believe, the Torah itself) also holds the Egyptians themselves responsible for persecuting the Hebrews. But not only did the Egyptians enslave the Israelites, they also enslaved *themselves* to the Pharaoh, who would ultimately betray and sacrifice them on the altar of their own greed. This is an eternal lesson to us to be wary of our own base impulses and to avoid seeking a strongman to serve as our appointed savior.
The Trap of Self-Enslavement
This week’s Torah portion continues the saga of the Hebrews’ escape from slavery in Egypt. Last week, we met Moses, the unlikely Prince of Egypt turned Midianite shepherd turned reluctant spokesperson for the Creator of the World. This week, Moses, along with his brother Aaron, summons seven plagues designed to break the chains of Israelite bondage. And seven times, their bid for freedom is thwarted.
Often, the villain we remember and revile—the antagonist whose grip over the Israelites must be broken—is Pharaoh, King of Egypt. It is Pharaoh that Moses and Aaron address time and again, and it is Pharaoh whose word can release or ensnare the Hebrews at will. This is why we recall in the Haggadah at Passover, עֲבָדִים הָיִינוּ לְפַרְעֹה בְּמִצְריִם, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and Adonai, our God, brought us out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” Pharaoh was our oppressor and our adversary whom God defeated in triumph.
But this week’s Torah portion reminds us of another enemy, perhaps even more powerful than Pharaoh himself. It is the Egyptian people, the amalgamated neighbors and countrymen of the Israelites who had lived centuries in their midst.
God instructs Moses in Exodus, Chapter 6:
5I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites, whom the Egyptians hold in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. 6Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Eternal. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. 7And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the Eternal, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians (JPS translation, slightly modified).
Here, the Egyptians themselves are portrayed as the ones who enslaved the Hebrews. Thus we also recite in the Passover Haggadah a selection from the Book of Deuteronomy: וַיָּרֵעוּ אֹתָנוּ הַמִּצְרִים, “And the Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; and they imposed upon us hard bondage” (26:6). Here it is the Egyptian people, not their king, who bear responsibility for enslaving the Hebrews.
Indeed, this is how the sages of Jewish tradition have understood who’s to blame for our oppression. Responding to a series of nuances in the biblical text, the ancient rabbis suggested that the Egyptian people willingly crowned Pharaoh and then more or less told him what to do. Theirs was the plot to enslave the Hebrews and theirs the plan to murder their newborn sons. These were the machinations of the Egyptians described in last week’s Torah portion.
But then, they do something viewed by our tradition—if such a thing could be said—as even worse: having ordered Pharaoh to enslave the Hebrews, they thereafter enslave themselves to their chosen king. In this week’s reading, Pharaoh is referred to as “King of Egypt” four times in twenty verses. Subsequently, the Egyptians appear to be subsumed under Pharaoh’s will. The plagues impact their lives, but all they can do is react. It is Pharaoh’s decisions that matter now, and the Egyptians seem to have lost their voice.
The Egyptian’s disempowerment will become tragically clear in two weeks, during the climactic showdown at the Red Sea. Invoking once again his power as King of Egypt, Pharaoh will literally take his people (Ex. 14:6) to the Sea of Reeds, forcing them to pursue the fleeing Hebrews against their will. There they will drown, victims ultimately of their own attempt at genocide. Pharaoh, meanwhile, is spared, and, according to one legend, eventually becomes the King of Nineveh who hears the prophecy of Jonah and immediately repents.
Make no mistake, Pharaoh is an enemy to the People of Israel. According to midrash, Pharaoh at first stood up for the Hebrews, refusing to go along with the Egyptians wicked plans. But when the Egyptians threatened to remove him from power, he yielded, enacting every one of their demands and adding new burdens besides. Pharaoh reveled in the powers of tyranny handed to him by his people, and, as one would expect, he took every advantage of that authority once it was his. He enslaved and oppressed the Hebrews and then turned his back on his own people, ruining his nation and decimating its population for his towering arrogance and depraved thirst for power.
But the Egyptians who gave him the reins, who abrogated their own freedom in order to despoil their innocent neighbors, bear the brunt of responsibility. The Egyptian people acted selfishly and out of fear, turning to a strongman to advance their own interests through policies of violence and oppression. Rabbinic tradition ultimately places the blame at their feet and issues a warning to future generations never to repeat their tragic failure.
The lesson is there for us if we are wise enough to learn it. In today’s world, where it is so easy to empower others to act on our behalf, we may be tempted to seek out those who would promise us victory over our enemies, real or imagined. We seek out leaders who can give us everything we want and hand them the authority to make decisions whose impact we cannot fully comprehend. But our tradition urges us to resist the impulse to export responsibility. If we put our faith in the hands of a few instead of taking responsibility for our own lives and communities, we may risk repeating the fate of the Egyptians, realizing too late that we’ve given away what we can never get back.
Not every Egyptian acted immorally, and in this there is hope. The midrash tells us of the Egyptians who celebrated Passover alongside their Hebrew neighbors, ultimately emerging safely from Egypt, passing through the Sea of Reeds, and accepting the Torah at Mt. Sinai, thereby joining the People of Israel that their wicked brethren had attacked.
Even when it seems as if “everyone” has gone astray, we know that there is room for conscientious objection, for standing up for what’s right even when it’s not popular, and for taking responsibility for making a difference in the areas where we do have control.
Our tradition vilifies the Egyptians who attacked us but regards as heroes and role models the Egyptians who did the right thing. May we in our own day follow their lead. May we realize our own place in the vital work of repairing the world, committing ourselves, each in our own way, to bringing some measure of justice and peace.
 Here I have elided מִצְרַיִם and הַמִּצְרִים. It would be fair and meaningful to distinguish these terms, but I believe they generally refer to the same people. See Exodus 18:9-10, which demonstrates that מִצְרַיִם does not include Pharaoh and therefore may be understand as the Egyptian people writ large (הַמִּצְרִים):
ט וַיִּחַדְּ יִתְרוֹ עַל כָּל-הַטּוֹבָה אֲשֶׁר-עָשָֹה יְיָ לְיִשְֹרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר הִצִּילוֹ מִיַּד מִצְרָיִם:
י וַיֹּאמֶר יִתְרוֹ בָּרוּךְ יְיָ אֲשֶׁר הִצִּיל אֶתְכֶם מִיַּד מִצְרַיִם וּמִיַּד פַּרְעֹה אֲשֶׁר הִצִּיל אֶת-הָעָם מִתַּחַת יַד-מִצְרָיִם:
 The word מצרים, usually referring to מִצְרַיִם and occasionally to הַמִּצְרִים (as here), appears far more frequently in the Haggadah then the term פרעה. This further supports the thesis that the Egyptians are remembered ultimately as the enslavers of the Hebrews.
 Exodus Rabbah 1:8.
 Exodus Rabbah 1:18.
 Yalkut Shimoni on Torah, remez 176:
הצילוֹ הקב"ה מבין המתים והעמידוֹ לספר כח גבורתו שנאמר וְאוּלָם בַּעֲבוּר זֹאת הֶעֱמַדְתִּיךָ (שמות ט טז). והלך ומלך בנינוה וכששלח הקב"ה יונה לנינוה להנבא עליה להחריבה שמע פרעה ועמד מעל כסאו וקרע את בגדיו ולבש שק ואפר ולאחר ארבעים יום שבו למעשיהם הרעים.
 Exodus Rabbah 1:8.
 Exodus Rabbah 18:10.
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