Exodus 1:1 – 6:1
When Immigrants and Migrants are Hated for their Success
This week we begin a new book of the Torah, and our story picks up where we left off at the end of Genesis, with the family of Yaakov going down to Egypt. Why are they going down there? Surely the most emotional impacting reasons is so that the family can be re-united with Yosef. However, as touching of a reason as this is, there was a much more harsh reality at play which brought them there. There is another reason we need to considered. Namely that initially they were forced to come to Egypt in order to survive a famine in their homeland of Canaan.
In this week’s parsha we are quickly presented with the rise of that family, from a mere “seventy souls” of the descendants of Yaakov (Yisrael) who had come to take refuge with their brother Yosef in a foreign land, to becoming a distinct and successful people in their own merit. And how they came to be hated, not for their neediness in the end, but for their success as foreigners and their emerging greatness. This is a pattern which is all too real many times.
I don’t want to dig into the story of their journey down to Egypt, because of course we got that already in detail in the book of Genesis. Here in Exodus we are talking about the coming together and the rise of these children of Israel in a foreign land. How they rose to be a distinguished people in the land of Egypt. And the details surrounding this are few here, as in very few verses the story turns sour for the Israelites.
In the sixth verse we read that Yosef died, as well all the people of his generation. Everyone who knew Yosef personally were deceased. All those who knew of how he had saved all of Egypt from famine were now dead. Now, that was not what captivated the minds of the new generation and their new ruler when he came to power. That was not what came to mind as they considered the Israelites and their successful sojourn in Egypt.
As we see here, the main observation in this narrative – especially from the point of view of the Egyptians – is made plainly present to us right away:
“The children of Israel
and swarmed and increased
and became very strong,
and the land became filled with them.”
| vayishretzu vayirbu
| vaya’atzmu bime’od me’od
| vatimale ha’aretz otam
Now in this key verse from this weeks parsha, we see how the negative attitude and distrust arose. It was not just that there was a new generation, which did not have the same direct ties between the two cultures as in Yosef’s day. But more so the concern at hand was that the children of Israel had become very populous and exceedingly strong since then. And that the land had now become filled with Israelites.
These Israelites had become too successful, and there now were too many of them. And this began to concern the Egyptian people. And it also began to concern their new Pharaoh.
Before we look at the Pharaoh’s reaction to this populist outcry, let take a look at the psychology of the Egyptians rising prejudice in this narrative. I believe we have a word in the text which aptly delivers the very thoughts of this Egyptians host society. Here with the word, “vayishretzu,” meaning and they swarmed. This word, sharatz means “to swarm,” or “to infest.”
The Egyptians seem to be so alarmed by the rise of the Israelites that they easily dehumanized them in their minds. The Israelites are made out to be something as less than human, instead they are thought of as an infestation. Like bugs or vermin.
Even when our master Rashi interpret this text in order to deliver a meaning for us Jews reading on as later observers to this narrative, he cannot help but to also draw our attention as to how inhuman this word is. He instead takes it as a positive by applying midrash, suggesting in his commentary that the Israelites became numerous because they were each given six children with each birth. Something which is normally not so for us human mammals.
Rashi seems to take the understanding that we should read this word along the lines of the meaning “to be spawned,” as that’s how drastic their rise in numbers seemed. As though the Israelites were each given miraculous fertility, people having babies in a fashion comparable to the way other mammals might have litters.
From personal experience, as a minority descendant of immigrants, I’ve heard phrases used both these ways. However, not exactly as kindly as maybe our Rashi is suggesting, I’m afraid. The first way, I’ve heard in the voices of the anti-immigrant radicals; people who tend to call Latinos like myself roaches and vermin. And then there is the second way I’ve also heard it used, even by the most progressive professors of mine in college. When I heard them occasionally uncouthly remark on how supposedly immigrant Latinos are “so damn fertile” as a means to explain our rising demographics and growing influence. As you see for me, either way, I never really felt like this was a compliment. Rarely is it used as one either.
I think too few people are sensitive enough to give attention to precisely how dehumanizing these type of words can be. And we often fail to consider how these dehumanizing attitudes and statement, when left unchecked as in this story, can result in inhumane acts to come.
Now once again, let us take notice of the situation. These Israelites had become too successful, and now there were too many of them. And this began to concern the Egyptian people. And likewise it also began to concern their Pharaoh. He had to act, but he also had to have his own pretext which justified his actions against these people.
He didn’t just see these people as an infestation, but also as part of a potential invasion:
“He [Pharaoh] said to his people, ‘Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more numerous [or greater] and stronger than we are.
“Get ready, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they increase, and when a war befall us, and they join our enemies, and fight against us, and depart from the land.’
“So they appointed over them tax collectors to afflict them with their burdens…”
וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל עַמּוֹ הִנֵּה עַם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל רַב וְעָצוּם מִמֶּנּוּ:
הָבָה נִתְחַכְּמָה לוֹ פֶּן יִרְבֶּה וְהָיָה כִּי תִקְרֶאנָה מִלְחָמָה וְנוֹסַף גַּם הוּא עַל שׂנְאֵינוּ וְנִלְחַם בָּנוּ וְעָלָה מִן הָאָרֶץ:
וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלָיו שָׂרֵי מִסִּים לְמַעַן עַנֹּתוֹ בְּסִבְלֹתָם…
Here Pharaoh questions the loyalty of these resident-alien Israelites, and thus makes them out to be a threat to national security. They are a potential threat within his boarders, a threat which needs to be dwelt with.
Now I understand that many people might feel uncomfortable with this subject of the immigrants plight. In this part of the country in which I live, in a region which is heavily effected by the constant influx of migrants, this is a much painfully debated topic from both the right and the left. So talking about immigration is not exactly the best way for teachers like myself to satisfy their crowd. No matter how nuanced my presentation is. I’m likely to upset someone. Yet I feel that I must touch on this topic, because this lesson hits home for people like myself. Not just as a Latino, but even more so as a Jew! And as a Jew who caries on the heritage and ethics of my local community. And as a local who carries the burden of our local history in order to overcome it.
Let me explain before we go on to conclude our study of the Torah text, as I believe our local history will help draw this Torah lesson closer to us in a more vivid way.
Our Local History which Binds our Jewish Commitment to the Immigrant Community
If we want to talk about the hardships of the immigrants, our accounts really needs to mention the deplorable way that Asian immigrants have been treated in our society since the beginning, especially here in California. First there was the lynching of Chinese in Los Angeles in 1871. Then in 1882 the “Chinese Exclusion Act” was ratified, which had tremendous consequences for the Chinese immigrants in this state. Chinese immigrants were stripped of their rights and dehumanized by society. And also barred from immigration; be they skill, unskilled, or employed in mining (the most major break-back job of the day). They were painted as too needy, as thus the Chinese were unwelcome and treated as a threat. Unlike any other people, they were mistreated and even surcharged in death as a foreign burden, when they were begrudgingly buried here outside the limits of Evergreen Cemetery here in Boyle Heights.
The suffering often crudely summed up as the plight of the Chinese rail-workers – those strong people who also helped unite this continent – how they were treated is considered a national shame. It’s something we need to all remember and consider. Even today, in an age when in contrast people often show contempt and sometimes even commit hate crimes against Chinese immigrants simply because of their present-day successes and educational prowess. (see “3 Los Angeles teens ordered to stand trial in death of USC exchange student.” “Killing of Chinese Student in LA a Wake-up Call”)
However, this was not the first occurrence of anti-immigrant prejudice to overtake California. Our first occurrence of legislation targeting resented immigrant minorities was actually enacted in 1855, just five years after the state was admitted into the Union. William W. Stow, Speaker of the State Assembly of California (and creator of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco), enacted unconstitutional Christian Sabbath laws. And in a slanderous manner accused Jews of depriving Christian business owners of customers and profits. Stow even accused Jews of being foreigners who did not contribute to the state!
This accusation that Jews were strangers getting successful at the expense of Christians was challenge by none other than Samuel K. Labatt, the American Sephardic Jew, and founder of the Hebrew Benevolent Society of Los Angeles (today known and operating as Jewish Family Service). Samuel and his lawyer brother Henry J. Labatt saw to the writing and publication of effective denunciations of Stow, which were also republished here by the Los Angeles Star in April 7th, 1855. Making Samuel K. Labatt the first anti-defamation activist of Los Angeles.
Both for the Jews and the Chinese, attempts to legally marginalize them did often succeed. Surfacing over and over again in a constant back and forth of legal discrimination waged out in the courts, and sparked by whatever social anxiety of the time. Jews became very aware of our need to mobilize and denounce the persecution of immigrants each time it arose.
When the next flow of the poorer Eastern European Jews came and settled in the area of Boyle Height in the early 20th century, the connection between our local Jewish community and our other minority immigrants became forged together. And not just by being neighbors, but by identifying with each others suffering. This suffering would then intensify in the wake of World War II, as many immigrants would experience the second element of the discrimination we’ve been talking about. As many of our immigrant minorities were also wrongly accused of being disloyal.
First in December 1941, when the United States was first thrown into World War II. The Jewish community was outspoken about their concern for their Japanese neighbors, even before their internment. Everyone from small to great.
As noted by a Jewish girl named Marilyn Greene, a student at Hollenbeck Junior High School at the time: “We have a special concern for our loyal American citizens of Japanese descent who are as truly American as any of us. They have our especial (sic) sympathy in the hard days and difficult situation that may lie before them.” (“The Siren,” student newspaper dated December 1941; see image to the right)
Their apprehension was justified, as shortly after the Japanese-American families were interned in camps. And their property and entire wealth was generally liquidated. In the wake of this, our local Jewish publishers were alone in decrying this injustice in the mass media. Al Waxman’s “East Side Journal” and the “L.A. Reporter” were the only newspapers in the nation to editorialize and decry the Japanese interment at the time. A brave and bold position in decrying injustice, one Waxman would also hold in the wake of the Zoot Suit Riots as well.
Which brings us to a most notorious event in local history, the Zoot Suit Riots. Which was not any one event, but a series of riots which gripped Los Angeles in 1943. A shocking spectacle of violence inspired by populist rhetoric. Riots inflicted upon the community by local Marines against the ethnic Zoot Suiter youth, one which most often resulted in stripping them naked and beating them. Defrocking them of their glorious outfits for which they were notorious. All this happening during the height of wartime, and with the aid of the local authorities and stoked by the conservative media which controlled Los Angeles at the time.
Though this wave of violence was inflicted on all minorities of this style of street-culture in those days, the brunt of the abuse was mostly directed at Mexicans. Partially in reaction to the US government’s much debated “Bracero Program.” (named for the Spanish term bracero, meaning “manual laborer” [lit. “one who works using his arms”]) which allowed immigration for manual laborers in the US’s existential time of need. A program aimed at helping provide workers to fill jobs left vacant as the local men were off to war. (see “Fighting over the American Standard of Living, 1943-1945: Zoot Suit Riots, Wildcar Strikes, and the Supremacy of the Soldier.”)
Servicemen of the day were regularly incensed by the appearance of the lack of support in uniform by these Mexicans during WWII, all the while accusing Mexicans of making out well financially in industrial jobs they were called up to fill as the war raged. Offended at the appearance of excess which Mexicans seemed to flaunt in the lean times of war, the Zoot Suit became their hated symbol of excess and opportunism. For this reason they were stripped and brutally beaten. All with the tactic approval of the police and sheriffs.
The Zoot Suit Riots were an orgy of violence directed against those perceived of as draft-dodging and disloyal, which spilled into all the minority communities of Los Angeles.
This series of brutal attacks were so severe it likewise traumatized the Jewish community of the area, as many regarded the unrest and targeting of Mexicans as reminiscent of the pogroms inflicted against themselves in Eastern Europe. Where Jews were also often accused of succeeding at the expense of their host countries. Where they were also often hated for their supposed lack of participation in the wars of their Czar and the nobles. Where they were also attacked for maintaining their own identity and standing apart.
For this reason the Jewish community felt a great affinity with the cause of Mexican-Americans and threw their strong political support behind this other immigrant rich community. The first vestiges of a working Latino civil rights movement would emerge from the aftermath of the riots. Even before most of my Latino ancestors had a concept of what civil rights activism looked like, progressive Jews supported our cause here. Understanding that Latinos of the area needed a voice and sense of self-determination in this shared community of ours.
The political unions made with progressive Jews at that time would also later help propel Edward R. Roybal to city council as the first Mexican-American council member of the City of Los Angeles in 1949, representing this very district. With the predominate Jewish community strongly endorsing Roybal, over and against a popular nationalist Jewish American candidate of the time. The election of Roybal kicked off a season of progressive advances in housing, education and healthcare access for the overlooked minority communities. Causes he carried with him to the US Congress.
I could go on and on, brining us to the present with examples the Jewish commitment to our minorities and immigrant communities. However, I present just a mere selection of our foundational history. As I want us to understand our basic roots here. And from where the bonds of our historical loyalties are derived. This is all to remind us, we have a historical and religious obligation as Jews to support and hold the cause of the immigrant minorities in this region, and specifically in this neighborhood of Boyle Heights.
This scenario which the Torah lays out to us here in this parsha, it is mirrored in real life. This resentment of an immigrant people who first came poor and then were hated for their successes in the end. People who were often called disloyal strangers. It is very accessible to us if we just think about the history around us.
In Conclusion: “So did they multiply and so did they gain strength.”
As we see from real life, persecution often fortifies people instead of breaking them. Making them more determined, and forcing them to further develop their strengths. And so it was for the migrant Israelites as well. As we read in the next verse:
“But as much as they [the Egyptians] would afflict them [the Israelites], so did they multiply and so did they grow, and they were disgusted because of the children of Israel.”
וְכַאֲשֶׁר יְעַנּוּ אֹתוֹ כֵּן יִרְבֶּה וְכֵן יִפְרֹץ וַיָּקֻצוּ מִפְּנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:
The Torah text tells us that despite all the cruelties and afflictions laid upon them by the Egyptians, the Israelites continued to increase both in number and in strength. These are points which are important for us to understand. But as the translations often greatly vary here, lets us take a look at this for ourselves. What is it exactly saying here?
What happened for the children of Israel? They were able to yirbah – they were able to not just multiply, or increase. They were able to expand themselves.
What else happened for the children of Israel? They were able to yifrotz – they were able to grow, as most translations of the bible read. But I believe this translation is weak and insufficient. The word yifrotz means to break-out, to burst, to erupt, and to breach.
Our scriptures paint a picture of people who are blessed and whose lives are filled with success. They had arrived as a small and helpless people, and in a relatively short period of time they became great there. So great that they increased in population and in success, bursting out from their constraints in both these respects. Outgrowing their disadvantage in seemingly miraculous ways.
And what was the Egyptian reaction to this? We are told of the Egyptians, “vayakutzu mif’nei bnei yisrael / and they were disgusted in the faces of Israel.” What is this disgust? Is it merely just dehumanizing loathing? Or is it something more?
There is two more ways we can look at this text, depending on how we personally understand our master Rashi’s interpretation. We are presented with both of these ideas in the commentary for this line:
“And they were disgusted: They were disgusted with their lives. (Others explain: And the Egyptians were disgusted with themselves, and it is easy to understand why.) Our Rabbis, however, interpreted it to mean that they [the Israelites] were like thorns (כקוצים) in their eyes. [from Sotah 11a]”
ויקצו: קצו בחייהם. ורבותינו דרשו כקוצים היו בעיניהם:
Rashi to Exodus 1:12
We have actually talked about this before. When dealing with turns of phrase similar to this. One reference found in a statement made by Isaac, and another found in the story of Moab and Balaam. In both those cases we saw that this phrase meant to be “disgusted” with life. To be “weary” of one’s own existence, but on account of others! (see Parshat Balak 2011)
So we can look at this two ways. The first being, that these Egyptians couldn’t feel contentment in life because of these Israelites whom they loathed. Their very existence and presence in their land caused them to be disgusted with life. As long as Israel remained and was prospering, they could not feel anything but disdain for life. These immigrants were ruining their lives!
And then there is the second way to look at this. That the Egyptians were disgusted with themselves. That the Egyptians grew disgusted with the results of their own way of life. They grew disgusted with their own inability to succeed and overcome their own challenges. And furthermore they even grew disgusted with the way that they mistreated these Israelites, and looking at these people constantly reminded them of that. Everything about their conduct made them disgusted with themselves as they stood before these noble Israelites. They became disgusted of their own conduct when forced to stand, “mif’nei bnei Yisaael / in the face of Israel.” They could no longer stand looking at these people eye to eye.
For this reason the Egyptians felt that they had to be “shrewd” with these Israelites. Inflicting taxation, slavery, heavy labor, etc. All of this we read as our parsha continues. But still we need to ask ourselves. Why would they go to this extreme, to all but annihilate this people? How could they then further descent into the slaughter of the Israelite babies?
An understanding of this is drawn out of the text here by our sages here, as Rashi finally notes. It’s because these Israelites became like thorns in the eyes of the Egyptians. Meaning everywhere they looked all they could see was these Israelites, and it was more than an irritation to them. It was even a pain – like kotzim, thorns in their eyes – for the Egyptians to see this people increase and succeed. So they took matters into their own hands.
And this is a hardship which Israel has always faced. In conclusion, I would like us all to consider this deep observation made by Rabbi Robert Kaplan concerning this phenomenon of hatred toward Israel by their detractors, hatred for their success and growth:
“When people look honestly at the accomplishments of the Jewish people and all of the advancements to civilization they have provided over the millennia of human existence, it is an astounding record. The achievements made by the Children of Israel, in every historical time period be it peaceful but mostly turbulent, is unexplainable in terms of natural causality. This fact registers unconsciously in the minds of our enemies particularly when they boast of numerical superiority and cultural enlightenment. There are two ways to deal with these phenomena. The enemy can look inward and reexamine its culture, its way of living and philosophy of life. If they did, they would realize the great advantage such recognition would bring to their existence. They would be able to make the necessary changes to improve their lives. However, the easier path is to blame the other, successful society for making you look bad. When this course is chosen, the only way to relieve the disappointment at failure of your own inability to succeed is to turn the frustration outward onto the ones who make you look and feel bad by their success. If possible, destroying them from existence is the best solution. Then there will be no more reminders of your internal disgust at your own inability to succeed.”
CURE: Community Understanding for Racial and Ethnic Equality
Something to Consider: Are you anxious or distressed by immigrants and foreigners? Do you hold resentment for certain cultures for their increasing prominence? Maybe instead of being intimidated and unwelcoming, it would be a benefit for us to learn from other peoples unique ways and see how to adapt their strengths to our society as well. To appreciate these people as a contributing benefit to our society, and not as a threat.
- Havdalah as a Light to the Community – “Reflections and Lessons from the Havdalah Circle of Boyle Heights”
- Parshat Va’eira (2013) – “What Do We Understand About G-d More Than the Patriarchs Did? His Name!”
- Parshat Shemot (5774) – “You are a star“
- Parshat Shemot (2013) – “When People Actually Curse Themselves Through Their Own Words”
- Parshat Shemot (2012) – “Does It Feel Like G-d Forgets About Our Suffering?“