Like Sheep to the Slaughter?
At the start of parasha Shemot, we are shown how the Jews in Egypt rapidly deteriorated from being honored citizens to becoming pitiful slaves.
At the same time, we are informed of the birth of the man who will eventually lead Am Yisrael to their freedom. Not a man who had suffered with the masses or a populist leader from the rank and file. Indeed, Moshe Rabbeinu had very little to do with Am Yisrael during their slavery.
Apart from one incident involving an Egyptian taskmaster attacking a Jewish slave, (Shemot 2:11-15,) there is little to no indication of any real relationship between Moshe Rabbeinu and Am Yisrael before the episode of the burning bush.
There is a host of midrashic literature regarding Moshe’s upbringing, and it is certainly reasonable to assume that if indeed Yocheved was ‘employed’ by Pharaoh’s daughter as Moshe’s ‘nanny’ in his formative years, then she may well have informed him of his true identity and educated him in the history and philosophy of his people.
Nevertheless, Moshe grew up in Pharaoh’s palace, and even if he was fully aware of his family history, he had no first-hand experience of their slavery. He was the ‘Prince of Egypt’, and it is possible that he grew up a little unsure of his loyalties.
Rabbi Yitzchak Bernstein, my Rabbi and mentor of blessed memory, illustrated this idea quite beautifully:
Just before Moshe kills the Egyptian, the verse informs us that he looks around and sees that no one is watching – “ki ein ish” (lit. there was no man.) Only then does he slay the taskmaster (Shemot 2:12.) The verse appears to describe Moshe’s caution before defending his Jewish brother, but Rabbi Bernstein explains that it could also be describing Moshe’s internal identity crisis.
He saw an Egyptian hitting a Jew. He also saw the Egyptian and the Jew within himself, and he understood “ki ein ish” – ‘there was no man,’ i.e. he couldn’t live with two identities any longer. This was his moment of truth. He swiftly decides to slay the Egyptian within him, and declares himself a Jew, fully prepared to dedicate himself to his brothers’ suffering.
The Ibn Ezra offers another perspective on Moshe’s royal childhood:
Perhaps the Almighty arranged Moshe’s childhood in a palace so that he could acquaint himself with the habits of the aristocracy. His behavior in killing the Egyptian, and later when assisting Yitro’s daughters at the well, indicates a free, self-confident man, and not a fearful slave lacking the courage to take initiative.
The Ibn Ezra implies that the inspiration for Am Yisrael’s freedom could not come from within, for they were slaves who could never dream of rebelling against the ruling power.
12 chapters later, at the splitting of the sea, he reinforces this idea:
It is perplexing that a people numbering 600,000 men between the ages of 20 and 60 could be intimidated by an army of 600 chariots. Why did the people despair? Surely, at a ratio of 1000:1, they could successfully wage war and overcome the enemy?
In answering his own obvious question, the Ibn Ezra explains that Am Yisrael viewed the Egyptians as their superior masters. Psychologically, they would never think of waging war against the people who had enslaved them for over two centuries. The Jews who left Egypt had been conditioned into subjugation and inferiority.
In order to support his thesis, the Ibn Ezra points to Amalek’s attack immediately after the splitting of the sea. The people were simply lost without Heavenly intervention.
Interestingly, and in contrast to famous revolutions throughout world history, this may have been the only ‘uprising’ that was neither initiated nor performed by the persecuted population. Indeed, throughout Moshe and Pharaoh’s tedious negotiations, Am Yisrael appears to do absolutely nothing. The first time they are required to actually do something is to sacrifice the Korban Pesach on the eve of the Exodus.
When comparing this generation of slaves – the Jews of exile – with their children, the generation who merited entering Eretz Yisrael, we see a remarkable transformation. Under Yehoshua’s leadership, the people fought for and settled the land during an intense 14-year period. The people who had once been slaves were now conquerors. The ‘pioneering settler’ had replaced the ‘Diaspora Jew’.
This sociological interpretation needs clarification. The Ibn Ezra may be talking in absolute terms, stating that the persecuted Jew in exile can never hope to break free; he is irreversibly programmed to endure and survive constant maltreatment, while lacking the potential to initiate an escape to freedom. Alternatively, he may simply be describing a phenomenon specific only to Am Yisrael in Egypt, but not to be applied throughout history.
We must be extremely careful when reading these words of Ibn Ezra, we must be sure to fully understand his comments before even contemplating judging Am Yisrael. On the surface, the slaves in Egypt do seem full of pitiful despair, but in reality nothing could be further from the truth. From the comments of Ibn Ezra we can deduce that our ancestors may well have had difficulty in physically rebelling against their tyrannical overlords, but at the same time let us not forget that these very same people kept the Jewish dream alive, against incredible odds, for over 200 years!
They never gave up, despite the onslaught of a cruel dictator with an evil agenda, despite the lack of any real hope apart from a ‘vague’ 400- year dream that some day they would be miraculously freed from bondage. The Ibn Ezra’s observation may well be true regarding a specific element of resistance – physical resistance against a long-standing dictator.
However, we must not confuse this narrow definition of resistance with the much wider, all-encompassing reality of a people who would simply not lie down and die. A people with no ‘official’ Torah; a people bound only by an insistent belief that the ancient promise given to Avraham Avinu would surely be realized. Can there be any greater resistance than this?
The fact is that Pharaoh did not succeed in killing off the Jewish people; on the contrary, the more he oppressed, the stronger they became. Is that not effective resistance? The will to live; the will to survive… we have no alternative but to admit that a truly passive and pitiful people would have disappeared in those conditions in a relatively short time.
Instead, after two centuries of slavery, we find a people yearning for redemption, subordinate maybe but obstinately looking forward to salvation; limited in the courage to pick up a weapon and attack perhaps, but nevertheless confident and stubborn even when faced with the most formidable foe!
It may well be that this was ultimately the undoing of the generation that left Egypt for freedom. They never succeeded in adjusting themselves to their new role of free men and women, never fully appreciating their newfound ability to initiate and strive forward. Although this may be true, I still find myself concluding the opposite of the sociological theory proposed above about Diaspora Jews and pioneering settlers. Those ‘settlers,’ the children who were born and bred in the wilderness, succeeded in conquering the land, not in spite of, but rather because of their ‘Diaspora’ parents’ heroic beliefs and stubborn survival instincts!
Our theme has obvious associations with the Holocaust. Many people want us to believe that the Jews of 20th Century Europe were exilic in nature, destined to live and die in the Diaspora. And these very same skeptics are accustomed to imply, using the infamous expression, that our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, simply surrendered to the Nazi oppressors, going to their deaths “like sheep to the slaughter.” I shudder at these accusations.
These ‘enlightened’ individuals dare to compare the ‘weak and impotent’ Jews of Europe with the new generation of brave and courageous ‘warriors’ who settled and conquered the Land of Israel…
Even though, educationally, the situation today has improved immeasurably – we can still recall stories of embarrassed Israeli ‘warriors’ faced with the challenge of explaining the ‘passivity’ with which their ancestors went to their deaths during those terrible Holocaust years.
Despite the gradual paradigm shift, the Holocaust is still officially commemorated in Israel on the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The heroism of those who rebelled is certainly worthy of remembrance they were men and women of unparalleled valor, but we must be careful not to narrow down our definition of resistance. It would be a complete travesty to suggest that the Warsaw Ghetto partisans were the only heroes, the only Jews who dared rebel (thankfully, in Israel, the emphasis has become much more all-encompassing in recent years).
The “sheep to the slaughter” theory is both simplistic and callous. It ignores years of suffering, and limits the definition of resistance to physical uprising.
Hannah Arendt illustrates this grave injustice in the first chapter of her book about the Eichmann Trial:
“The contrast between Israeli heroism and the submissive meekness with which Jews went to their deaths – arriving on time at the transportation points, walking on their own feet to the places of execution, digging their own graves, undressing and making neat piles of clothing, and lying down side by side to be shot – seemed a fine point, and the prosecutor, asking witness after witness, ‘Why did you not protest?’ ‘Why did you board the train?’ ‘Fifteen thousand people were standing there, and hundreds of guards facing you – why didn’t you revolt and charge and attack?”
I have studied the Holocaust for many years, yet to this day I have never really understood these comments.
Israel’s warriors are truly heroes, yet to my mind the Jews of Europe are no less heroic, on the contrary. The Jewish people have survived centuries of exile due to the subtle resistance of inner spiritual strength. ‘Slave mentality’ presumes total subordination and absolute submissiveness. If that were really the case, the Jewish people would have disappeared off the face of the earth 2000 years ago.
In the context of the Jews in Europe during the Second World War, a study of the facts will relatively quickly reveal that armed resistance was more often than not a last resort. Almost every case of Jewish physical resistance during those terrible years was a final act of pride and courage, when the bitter truth was undeniable; when there was no longer any chance of living. Many chose to die as free men. However, the struggle that is so often ignored is the ongoing resilience, the stubborn refusal to give in, and the strength of spirit that enabled our people to somehow survive this unprecedented plague of evil incarnate.
For two millennia, our oppressors have repeatedly tried to break our resolve and paralyze our inner strength – through ghettoes, pogroms, the Holocaust, suicide bombers, and more. But Am Yisrael has never been broken. As we have already suggested, the fact that Jews did not revolt is due to their inherent will to survive. The Jews of Europe survived concentration camps and death marches in sub-human, sub-zero conditions. It is almost unbelievable, impossible to comprehend, that people can be so sure of their will to live that they will endure the unendurable.
We must go even further. Resistance is not just armed struggle; neither can it be narrowed down to the stubborn will to live. Millions survived, but millions died, and it would be a desecration of the dead to ignore the heroism and courage of those that died, each and everyone of them resisting in their own private way.
So many died with words of prayer on their lips, refusing to give up their faith to the bitter end. So many died in order to protect their children, in order to smuggle food and medicine. Adam Cziernakow, Head of the Judenrat in the Warsaw Ghetto, committed suicide at 4:00pm on July 23rd 1942, a note was found on his desk addressed to his wife, saying: “They are demanding that I kill the children of my people with my own hands. There is nothing for me to do but die.” He refused to follow the Gestapo’s orders, preferring to take his own life rather than be involved in the deportation of Warsaw’s Jews.
And what of Janusz Korczak, who may well have avoided deportation altogether had he not insisted on accompanying his orphans to Treblinka? And the young mothers who refused to be separated from their infant children, preferring death to abandoning their young ones? Is this not resistance? Is this passive submissiveness? Is this honestly a people that walked like sheep to the slaughter? Absolutely not!
This people are like no other. This is a people that want to live; that have what to live for, but it is also a people that are prepared to die if the alternative makes life unlivable, if that in order to live one has to deny life itself! We are a people who have and will always remain loyal to our beliefs and true destiny!
These people are the modern equivalent of Moshe Rabbeinu’s parents, the parents of the Egyptian era, who continue to bear and raise Jewish children in perfect faith despite the deadly decrees and surrounding terror.
As always, the issues are so much more complex than people wish to admit. The Ibn Ezra is referring to one aspect of slave mentality – armed revolt. It would be both grave and unjust to interpret his comments to include absolute submissiveness both in context of our ancestors in Egypt, and in association with the more recent tragedies that have befallen our people.
Israel exists today not only because of her military heroes. The courage and dedication of our soldiers are obviously a contributory factor – but ultimately we continue to survive, with God’s help, because of the eternal Jewish spirit. There is no distinction between exilic Jews and Israelis. The generation that left Egypt did not transform itself into a military entity, but were it not for their inner resolve and determined resistance throughout the years of subjugation, there would have been no one left to redeem.
The same inner strength that kept us alive for 210 years in Egypt is the same inner strength that enabled Am Yisrael to survive the Holocaust, and the very same resources will see us through, Bezrat Hashem, to the Final Redemption, may it come speedily in our time.
On this day we remember and honor, it is our duty to ensure that no one ever forgets. May the souls of the millions rest peacefully in Shamayim, and may the survivors find peace of mind and nachat ruach from their families.
Tehai zichram baruch
Rav Milston (Nissan 5766)