At the beginning of parshat Shemot, the Torah tells us, “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” The commentators suggest it would be impossible for any Egyptian king not to know what Joseph had done for Egypt. Rather, he found it convenient to ignore Joseph’s monumental contribution. Perhaps he even resented it, that an outsider could do what an earlier king could not.
The 19th-century German Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that whatever the king did or did not know, the people certainly did know about Joseph and considered the Jews benefactors, not intruders. And so Pharaoh had to proceed slowly with his campaign to destroy the Jews. He began with propaganda: “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us (mimenu). 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 gain ascendency over the country.”
Rabbi Hayyim ben Attar (18th century) pointed out that mimenu can also be translated as “from us.” That is, Pharaoh told his people that the Israelites had become powerful and wealthy at the expense of the Egyptians.
Once Pharaoh had planted the idea that the Israelites were a threat to Egypt and the Egyptians, he proceeded to enslave them. And when that did not have the desired effect of reducing their numbers, he issued his notorious order to the midwives to kill all the Jewish boys at the moment of birth.
The midwives refused to carry out Pharaoh’s order, and to save themselves, they told him, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women: they are vigorous (haiyot heina). Before a midwife can come to them, they have given birth.” Moreover, the phrase haiyot heina, they are vigorous, can also be translated as “they are animals.”
The midwives explained that they had been unable to obey Pharaoh’s order because the Hebrew women were animals; they give birth in the fields, without the help of a midwife like proper ladies do. And Pharaoh believed them, because he had to see the Israelite slaves as less than human before he could engage in wholesale slaughter.
In The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi, an Italian survivor of Auschwitz, wrote about what he called “useless violence” inflicted by the Nazis — the horrific conditions of the train transports, strippings, beatings, endless roll calls, etc. He reported that when the former commandant of Treblinka was asked, “Considering that you were going to kill them all — what was the point of the humiliations, the cruelties?” he replied, “To condition those who would man the gas chambers.” Levi wrote, “Before dying, the victim must be degraded, so that the murderer will be less burdened by guilt.”
Similarly, Pharaoh was eager to believe that his Hebrew slaves were more like animals than human beings, because it made it so much easier to kill them.
The Sifra records a debate between Rabbi Akiva and Ben Azzai about the greatest principle of the Torah. Rabbi Akiva said, “Love your fellow as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18). Ben Azzai said, “There is a greater principle than that — ‘This is the record of Adam’s line: when God created man, He made him in the likeness of God’” (Bereshit 5:1).
When you look into the face of another human being and see the likeness of God, the inhumanity of a Pharaoh or Hitler becomes unthinkable, for you realize that you and he look exactly alike.