Friday, December 24, 2010

Did Pharaoh command the Egyptians to kill their own children?

Summary: So goes a midrash. Does peshat follow? To an extent, I think. Plus, how the Samaritans over-correct and so tip their hand.

Post: Towards the beginning of Shemot, we have the following pasuk:

22. And Pharaoh commanded all his people, saying, "Every son who is born you shall cast into the Nile, and every daughter you shall allow to live."כב. וַיְצַו פַּרְעֹה לְכָל עַמּוֹ לֵאמֹר כָּל הַבֵּן הַיִּלּוֹד הַיְאֹרָה תַּשְׁלִיכֻהוּ וְכָל הַבַּת תְּחַיּוּן:

Midrash Rabba deduces from the phrase וַיְצַו פַּרְעֹה לְכָל עַמּוֹ that Pharaoh also laid this command on his own people, the Egyptians, that they should cast their own children into the Nile:
ויצו פרעה לכל עמו
אמר רבי יוסי בר רבי חנינא: 
אף על עמו גזר.
ולמה עשה כן? שהיו אסטרולוגין אומרים לו: גואל ישראל, נתעברה ממנו אמו, ואין אנו יודעין אם ישראל הוא או מצרי הוא? באותה שעה כנס פרעה כל המצרים, ואמר להם: השאילו לי את בניכם תשעה חדשים, שאשליכם ליאור, הדא הוא דכתיב: כל הבן הילוד היאורה וגו', כל הבן של ישראל אין כתיב כאן, אלא כל הבן, בין יהודי בין מצרי, ולא רצו לקבל ממנו, שאמרו: בן מצרי לא יגאל אותן לעולם, אלא מן העבריות. 

Actually, not only from "he commanded all his people" but also from כָּל הַבֵּן הַיִּלּוֹד, without specification that this is an Egyptian or Hebrew son. Perhaps also from kol, there is a ribuy. The reason for this is that the command to kill the male infants (as opposed to female) did not stem from worry that the entire Israelite population would rise up in civil war at time of attack, but because Pharaoh's astrologers predicted that a boy would be born who would redeem the Israelites. And these astrologers did not know whether this boy would be a Hebrew or an Egyptian -- ואין אנו יודעין אם ישראל הוא או מצרי הוא.

Rashi echoes this midrash:
ש(כב) לכל עמו - אף עליהם גזר. יום שנולד משה אמרו לו אצטגניניו היום נולד מושיען, ואין אנו יודעין אם ממצרים אם מישראל, ורואין אנו שסופו ללקות במים, לפיכך גזר אותו היום אף על המצרים, שנאמר כל הבן הילוד, ולא נאמר הילוד לעברים, והם לא היו יודעים שסופו ללקות על מי מריבה.

I looked in many of the classic meforshim and did not find an explicit contradiction to this midrashic explanation by Rashi. Rather, there is silence. Still, I don't think that in all cases (e.g. Ibn Ezra), shetika kehodaah. The nature of this midrash is such that it adds an entire story line, rationale for targeting males, rather than slightly interpreting a detail here and there.

Yet, we have at least one pashtan going on record that the Egyptians were not commanded to kill their own children. Ibn Caspi writes:
כָּל הַבֵּן הַיִּלּוֹד -- לישראל:

Thus, though the pasuk does not state this explicitly, of course this is what this means. And this is the way of peshat, I think -- sometimes, one needs to say 'Nu, Nu.' That is, don't make too much of a diyuk into what the pasuk states and does not state, for such  a close reading is derash rather than peshat.

It would seem that the Samaritans were aware of this derash or else the potential for this derash. Therefore, in their own Pentateuch, they add the word לעברים, every son born to the Hebrews.

This is obvious and should be known even implicitly, and the word's insertion makes the pasuk quite stilted. It feels artificial because it is, but it is yet another example of the Samaritans emending their Torah text to 'fix' problems.

While I do not think that the Egyptians drowning even their own children in the Nile is peshat, the author of this midrash does seem to have been attuned to a theme which runs through the story, and exploited or highlighted that. I would note that the midrashic author writes -- ואין אנו יודעין אם ישראל הוא או מצרי הוא. Moshe Rabbenu has this dual identity. He comes from the Hebrew slaves, but also grew up as the prince of Egypt. There is ambiguity, perhaps in his own mind, with whom he identifies. This comes to a head just before he smites the Egyptian, when he makes a final decision in this matter.

To cite a recent post in RationalistJudaism in this matter of Mosh's identity conflict:
Many years ago, I heard a terrific drush on this from Rabbi Dr. Natan Lopez-Cardozo, quoting Rav Shlomo Kluger: that we are being told here about the identity crisis of the prince of Egypt. When Moshe saw the Egyptian beating the Jew, “He looked this way and that way” – he looked at his royal Egyptian upbringing, and at his Jewish ancestral roots. “And he saw that there was no man” – he saw that he lacked a true identity. “And he slew the Egyptian” – within himself. “And hid him in the sand” – he totally detached himself from the Egyptian mindset, and aligned himself fully with the fate of the Jews. 
But read the full post. which tries to make a similar point even without this derush.

Many years ago, I related a multi-valent peshat which focused on the ambiguity of the word echav, that Moshe either went to see his brothers or the Egyptians:
וַיְהִי בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם, וַיִּגְדַּל מֹשֶׁה וַיֵּצֵא אֶל-אֶחָיו, וַיַּרְא, בְּסִבְלֹתָם; וַיַּרְא אִישׁ מִצְרִי, מַכֶּה אִישׁ-עִבְרִי מֵאֶחָיו. 
"And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown up, that he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens; and he saw an Egyptian smiting a Hebrew, one of his brethren." 

The question that can be asked is who is אֶחָיו in pasuk 11. The reading that appeals to me is that it refers to Moshe's fellow Hebrews. But one could suggest that it refers to the fellow Egyptians. The problem I have with the latter is וַיַּרְא בְּסִבְלֹתָם seems to clearly refer to the Jew's burdens, but on the other hand perhaps it means the burdens of the Egyptians placed on the Jews' shoulders. Compare with Shemot 1:11: 
וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלָיו שָׂרֵי מִסִּים, לְמַעַן עַנֹּתוֹ בְּסִבְלֹתָם; וַיִּבֶן עָרֵי מִסְכְּנוֹת, לְפַרְעֹה--אֶת-פִּתֹם, וְאֶת-רַעַמְסֵס. 
"Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with *their burdens*. And they built for Pharaoh store-cities, Pithom and Raamses." 

So we have two possible interpretations for the pasuk. The multivalent approach is to say that both meanings were intended, and that there is deliberate ambiguity at work here. Moshe was a man torn between two worlds, that of his Hebrew heritage which was also that of the slaves, and that of his adopted family where he lived a life of privilege. When he went out to see his brothers, אֶחָיו, Moshe himself was not sure which of the two, the Egyptians or the Hebrews, he considered his brothers. Seeing the Egyptian hit the Hebrew made him choose. At the end of the pasuk, we see וַיַּרְא אִישׁ מִצְרִי מַכֶּה אִישׁ-עִבְרִי מֵאֶחָיו, so we can say that now Moshe chooses the Ish Ivri to be of his bretheren. (Alternatively, one might wish to stretch the multivalence to refer to this מֵאֶחָיו as well, with Moshe choosing when he actually slays the Egyptian.) 
But you can read the full post there. So, even if we don't adopt the midrash as peshat, at least some of the feeds into the midrash hook into themes which exist even on a peshat level.


Hillel said...

R' Waxman,
Perhaps "vayar ki ein ish" is intended to as a contrast to ""vaye'avek ish imo" - Yaakov and Moshe are both at a point of an identity crisis: Yaakov has an identity (the one who turns heel, who runs from Eisav, Lavan, etc.) and he wants to change from Yaakov to Yisrael, the one who stands and fights. Moshe has the opposite identity crisis - he needs to choose between Yisrael and Mitzrayim and realizes 'ein ish' - he has no identity - he's not really accepted by either group!

Just a thought,
KT and shabat shalom,

Unknown said...

Onkelos also specifies that it is the Israelite born children.

Joe in Australia said...

Hillel: nice one :-)


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