The Torah suggests it is not antisemitism as many think. He does not hate the Jewish people because they are Jews. He instead fears their growing numbers. Pharaoh proclaims, “The Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies.” (Exodus 1)
Pharaoh’s worry is the all too common fear of a fifth column. He worries that the Jewish people will grow so large that they will attack his country from within. I wonder. Is this threat real or imagined? Is it possible that Pharaoh is so insecure about his power that he looks out at the Israelites and his concern grows? Does he begin to see everyone in a similar manner? Pharaoh enacts legislation against the Israelites. They are enslaved. Their suffering increases.
Pharaoh’s worries, however, can never be quelled. Imaginary threats can never be sated. His fear turns murderous. He instructs the Hebrew midwives to kill every first-born Israelite. Where does such murderous hatred begin? It forms in the mind.
And that begins with forgetfulness. The Torah affirms: “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” Pharaoh forgets his history. He does not remember Joseph and by extension the Jewish people’s contributions to his society. Without the blessings of memory he begins to see Joseph’s descendants not as an asset but a threat.
Slavery becomes possible because he did not observe an essential teaching: Remember! Suffering does not begin with hatred. It follows from a lack of historical memory.
Pharaoh does not know Joseph. He does not remember. And then he looks at Joseph’s descendants and sees not blessings but threats.
Forgetfulness leads to hatred. And hatred too often leads to murder.
We were slaves in Egypt.
Love the stranger! (Leviticus 19)