The Vort – Miketz – The Dark Path

I’ve always wondered, how did the people of Israel’s experience in Egypt go from this:
•    Joseph’s successful governance of Egypt;
•    the Egyptians granting Jacob and his entire family the fat of the land of Goshen;
•    Joseph leading a huge, Pharoah-sponsored funeral procession of Jacob’s body back to Canaan.
To this:
•    oppression;
•    brutal slavery;
•    genocide.
What happened to the good will of the Egyptians? What makes a society turn 180º like that? I found an interesting answer in this week’s parasha, when Joseph and his brothers sit down for a meal together:

וַיָּשִׂימוּ לוֹ לְבַדּוֹ וְלָהֶם לְבַדָּם וְלַמִּצְרִים הָאֹכְלִים אִתּוֹ לְבַדָּם כִּי לֹא יוּכְלוּן הַמִּצְרִים לֶאֱכֹל אֶת הָעִבְרִים לֶחֶם כִּי תוֹעֵבָה הִוא לְמִצְרָים

And they served Joseph at his own table, and his brothers were served at a separate table. The Egyptians sat at their own table, because they could noy eat bread with the Hebrews, for the Hebrews were disgusting to the Egyptians. (Genesis 43:32.)
The Egyptians literally could not sit at the same table as the Hebrews. The very being of a Hebrew person disgusted them. At this point, however, that disgust is mitigated – the Joseph and the Hebrews are useful. However that disgust, that dehumanization of the other, is what enabled the Egyptian society to turn 180º into the oppression we all know from Shemot.
A first step towards systemic violence and oppression is the dehumanization of the other. It’s often expressed through disgust: Group X is dirty, perverse, sub-human, stupid, alien. Our experiences in Spain, Poland, Germany, and more, bear witness to this pattern. And we’re not the only ones. The Armenian and Tutsi genocides, the targeting of LGBT and Romani people in the Holocaust… the list goes tragically on.
Our awareness, biblically and historically, is what makes it so hard for me today to hear Jews adopt those kinds of attitudes about others. Some of us talk about disgusting, dirty Arabs. Some of us talk about stupid, in-bred Southerners. Our differences do not make us opposites. Anytime we do that, (and I’ve been guilty myself,) we walk down that Egyptian road starting with  disgust, and leading to fear and hatred. If we walk far enough down that road we too will end up perpetrating violence and evil.  Committing ourselves to acknowledging the humanity and dignity of whoever our “other” may be is the best way to keep us off that dark, Egyptian path.

5 thoughts on “The Vort – Miketz – The Dark Path

  1. We also know from ancient extra-biblical text that Egyptian society was highly xenophobic. And their artwork shares something in common with old American drawings of black people. In Egyptian artwork, you can always tell easily where a foreign character is from by the exaggerated stereotypical features included in the art.

  2. Egyptian society remains highly xenophobic, as does all Arab society. It’s timely you wrote this post, Ari. The Egyptians have a blockbuster movie out right now. The premise is that an Egyptian man – a Mossad agent, obviously – steals his wife and daughter to live in Tel Aviv. That’s actually quite perverse in itself, given how many children are kidnapped by their Arab fathers from the US to Arab countries. Anyway, the movie is utterly saturated with racist venom against Jews, including a Muslim religious intolerance to even live near Jews. A blockbuster hit, obviously.

  3. By the way, stretching a little since I don’t remember the Rashi for this, but it’s very possible the Egyptians detested the Hebrews because they were a people who slaughtered and ate sheep, and sheep were revered as a god by the Egyptians. Perhaps the Egyptians thought they were impure.

  4. Avigdor is right, the word used “תועבה” means abomination, which has to do with how the Hebrews profaned the holy animals of the Egyptians… Rashi points to Onkelos for the details.
    If I was a sheep worshipper I’d be pretty disgusted by the Hebrews eating them. I think I’m going to have to take the Egyptians side on this one.

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