The Egyptian Holocaust

Eerie parallels between the situation of the Jews in Egypt and Nazi Germany

There are three ways to tell the story of the Jewish people in Egypt.

One is to tell it from the perspective of the hieroglyphics of the time, i.e. from the perspective of ancient Egypt. If we were to tell the story from that angle the Jewish people did not exist. The Egyptians, like many other peoples, both ancient and modern, not only rewrite history later to make it conform to their point of view, but even pick and choose the elements they wish while the history is happening.

Nevertheless, what one does find from Egyptian hieroglyphics are certain strange coincidences that the biblical account explains like a missing puzzle piece.

The Missing Piece

Joseph and his brothers came to Egypt around 1500 BCE, which coincides with what is called in Egyptian history, the “New Empire,” as we discussed previously.

It was a period of radical change in Egypt. Rather than an isolated kingdom, Egypt became a world-dominating, expansionist empire. The New Empire lasted until about 1320 BCE, according to Egyptian hieroglyphics. Then something drastic occurred. Egypt suddenly suffered a precipitous decline.

What happened? The Egyptian records tell us nothing.

The biblical account fills in the gap. First, the great expansion of the New Empire coincides with the appointment of Joseph as viceroy and the story of how his foresight allowed Egypt to withstand the Great Famine and become the absolute economic center of the civilized world. Later, after the Jewish people became enslaved, Egypt was ruined by the miracles and plagues recounted in the Bible. That fills the gap of the missing record, which Egypt’s historians loathed to share.

History as Prophecy

Thus, we have two ways of telling the story of the Jewish people in Egypt: through Egyptian hieroglyphics and the biblical account. There is a third way of viewing it. This is the way the great sages of the Jewish people looked at it.

They never looked at history as a serious of names, dates and places. Rather they saw it as the narrative of events by which human beings, nations, empires and civilizations played out their role in God’s plan. This transformed history from a dry subject about the past into a living book of wisdom for the present and future; indeed, into form of minor prophecy about what is going to happen.

By definition, people living in the time do not see it in those terms. We are convinced that what was will always be. That is how we make our plans, invest the stock market and raise our children. We are not prepared for sudden changes that will literally mock everything that we have planned for over a period of decades. When you are in it there is no way to know exactly where you are and what is happening. A hundred years from now someone will be able to look back and say, “Oh yeah, that was the turning point.” However, as it happens no one knows.

That is the human condition. The great Jewish Sages sought to teach how to deal effectively with the human condition by identifying in the experience in Egypt certain salient facts that are not just history but rather social commentary regarding the present and future that will be valid at all times. They are teaching not just history but destiny.

This is the third way of viewing the story of the Jews in Egypt.

The Story

The Bible says that Joseph came to Egypt and rose to the position of viceroy, second-in-command only to Pharaoh (Genesis 41). After the dramatic recount of how Joseph first hid his true identity and then revealed it to his brothers, the Bible relates how he brought his father down to Egypt (Genesis 46).

A devastating famine raged throughout the civilized world, impoverishing nations and shattering economies. People were starving and had no money to pay for food. Joseph had foreseen and suggested measures to withstand it (Genesis 41). Egypt became the granary of the world.

However, as the famine worsened even the Egyptian people became impoverished. Joseph, consequently, instituted a centralized government (Genesis 47). To save their own lives, the Egyptians were forced to sell whatever they had to the State, including their land and ultimately themselves, turning it into an all-powerful centralized entity responsible for providing them with food, shelter and their basic needs. Political power in Egypt had been diffuse and spread between noblemen and other classes. Now it became centralized and given entirely to the Pharaoh.

Power is very dangerous. Under a brilliant, good, benign, competent ruler, power can be a boon for all. However, under an arrogant, selfish, incompetent ruler, then power is a disaster. As long as the Pharaohs remained good it was a beneficial system for Egypt. It provided the vehicle for ambitious Pharaohs to build an empire. When the Pharaohs turned bad, then everything turned bad.

The Jewish Problem

Even as Joseph ran the country he was immediately aware of the problem of the Jew: that he is different; he is alien.

Joseph knew his family was going to be “strangers in a land that was not theirs” and planned accordingly. He settled them in Goshen, far away from the central places of Egyptian culture and society, because he not only wanted to protect them from the influences of Egypt but to keep a low profile. He was afraid that a high profile would bring about enmity and persecution.

His strategy worked. Jews multiplied in an enormous ratio (Exodus 1:7), but under the radar. However, the sheer force of their numbers eventually turned the Jewish people from an unthreatening minority into a visible minority. The Jews in Egypt not only grew large numerically but in influence.

Jews have always been exceptional in exile, producing a disproportionate share of doctors, lawyers, merchants, businessmen, millionaires, journalists and others with potentially high profiles.[1] This may be good for a while, but historically problems begin for the Jewish people with success.

As time went on the barriers to assimilation that the earlier generations had built up began to fall. The Jews began to identify themselves with Egyptian culture. Escalating assimilation is a surefire sign of impending danger. As long as Jews keep a low profile, society finds it much easier to deal with them. When the Jews become visible and push into areas others feel is not theirs they push back.

Every action begets a reaction. The Egyptians got nervous. They now had a Jewish problem. Pharaoh, too, became afraid and schemed against them (Exodus 1:10).

This is a fear that will echo over the centuries and find itself in anti-Semitic writings of all types from all the lands where Jews would find themselves.

The Final Solution

Tradition records that Pharaoh was originally unsure what the reaction of his populace would be to the enslavement of the Jews. How far would they be willing to go? He discovered that his paranoia about the Jews had touched a responsive chord inside Egyptian society.

The slavery took place in stages. First, it was not slavery at all, but voluntary work. People were encouraged to help build cities for patriotic reasons. In Germany, the Jew was determined to show the Germans that he belonged and “out-Germaned the Germans.” So, too, in ancient Egypt the Jew “out-Egyptianed the Egyptians.” They showed up in droves to build the cities of Pithom and Ramses. Once committed to the work, Pharaoh gradually took away their freedoms. Patriotic, voluntary work became compulsory, mandatory work overseen by taskmasters (Exodus 1:11).

Next, it turned from compulsory, useful work into compulsory non-useful work. It went from making cities to slave labor for its own sake (Exodus 1:13-14). In Mauthausen concentration camp, the Nazis made the Jews carry heavy rocks up a long flight of steps. Then they would throw the rocks down and force the slave laborers to drag them back up again. It was senseless work designed to break morale. As long as there is some benefit the slave can tell himself he is doing something useful. Work with no benefit breaks the spirit.

That was Stage Two of the Egyptian plan. They made the Jews work “with rigor,” meaning for the sake of slave labor. The motivating factor for the Jewish laborer was not productive work in the completion of some building project but the terror of not fulfilling the quota and the taskmaster’s whip. The work was slave work.

The third stage was genocide. “Throw all the newborn boys into the river” (Exodus 1:16). Again, the parallels to the Holocaust are eerie. The last eighty years in Egypt were pure hell. It was arguably the worst experience the Jewish people had to endure until the time of Hitler, who condensed in four years what the Egyptians did in 80. It was a time of terror, persecution, enslavement and death.

The Egyptian Holocaust set the stage for the Redemption. However, redemption would come too late for many of the people. Nevertheless, a nucleus will make it out and the story of the Jewish people will continue through them.

[1] See the famous quote of Mark Twain in his essay: “Concerning the Jews.”

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Crash Course
Berel Wein adapted by Yaakov Astor
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