|What made Pharaoh so nervous that led him to enslave the Israelites? We can learn a great deal by reading two verses in this week’s parshah, Shemot, that begins the second book of the Torah. Here’s what the new king said to his people: “Look, the Israelite people–‘am Bnei Yisrael–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 in fighting against us and rise from the ground” (Shemot 1:9-10).
Up until this point, bnei Yisrael meant the sons, or children, of a man named Yisrael. It is Pharaoh who realizes that they are not just a big extended family of 70 souls anymore. They are ‘am Bnei Yisrael–a national entity, the People of Israel. The question is: does Pharaoh think that nationhood is in itself a bad thing, or is he merely troubled by the existence of a fifth column in his land?
We live in an era of deep ambivalence about the concept of nationalism. And its primary target is the nationalist program of the People of Israel, Zionism. In the aftermath of two world wars instigated by nationalist fevers, after seeing the unification of Europe simultaneous with the bloody battles in the Balkans, the world has grown tired of Zionism, nationalism, and other “isms” they deem to be anachronistic.
As evil as Pharaoh proved to be, he was also politically astute. As Daniel Gordis has written in his book The Promise of Israel, Pharaoh well understood the power of nationhood. On Shabbat morning, using Gordis as a guide, we’ll explore Pharaoh’s words in greater detail, and connect our story to another crucial political lesson from the Torah–the story of the Tower of Babel.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wise