The magical character button

Take, for example, the perplexing story of the Israelite midwives. Pharaoh gave them an order to put to death every male child that was born. The midwives disobeyed him and kept the boys alive as well. When Pharaoh confronted them, they gave him an excuse: "The Israelite women are very lively, and before the midwife arrives, they have already given birth!" Pharaoh realizes that working through the midwives will not do the job, so the issues a general order that all male children must be thrown into the river.

I find this story completely confusing. First of all, how do the midwives have the nerve to give such a lame answer to Pharaoh? Granted that they were prepared to risk their lives and not kill the males, but what kind of excuse is this? Why didn't Pharaoh simply respond that they should kill the male babies when they find them? Further, why did Pharaoh accept such insubordination? He held the power of life and death over the Israelites, or so he thought, so why didn't he punish the midwives?

The ease with which the Israelites had access to Pharaoh and could openly debate Pharaoh's policy towards them with him directly is also amazing! Moses, Aaron, the representatives of the Israelites all seem to have free run of the palace! One could never imagine such a thing in World War II Germany.

A further question. What was Pharaoh's goal of having the male children killed? If he sought to limit the growth of the Israelite population, as implied in the verses which stress just how fruitful Israel was, he should've had the female children eliminated. After all, one male could impregnate many females, so killing the male children is less effective. If here and there, a male child was missed, the Israelites would continue to multiply in any case. Not so if the girls were killed.

One more question, and then we will try to answer them all. After the Israelites are liberated, and after they have received the Torah, there are a number of Commandments relating to the various nations that have oppressed us. First and foremost, is the commandment to eradicate the memory of Amalek. Then, we are enjoined to not despise the Edomite, "for he is your brother."

But one contrast seems to be striking. Regarding the Ammonites and Moabites, the Torah tells us to not allow them to join our people ever. Why? Because they did not bring out water and bread to us as we traveled through the wilderness. Regarding Egypt, however, we have an opposite approach. "Do not despise the Egyptian, for you were a guest in his land." What? What kind of hospitality was that? Decades upon decades of bitter servitude? And what kind of crime did the Ammonites and Moabites commit? It seems that what they did was far worse than the Egyptians! How can this be?

Our rabbis, perhaps in response to this question, tell us a story about Pharaoh's intentions regarding the Israelite males. His fortunetellers had informed him that a savior had been born to the Israelites. This savior would liberate them from Egyptian slavery and lead them out of the country. Pharaoh was not prepared to allow this to happen, so he ordered all of the males to be killed. In this way, he hoped that that savior would be among those eliminated.

From all of the above questions, I have come to a possible explanation. It is that the Egyptians were not "anti-Semitic," and did not hate the Israelites in the least. Allow me to explain.

I believe there are three kinds of jealousy in the world. The worst kind is one where the jealous individual despises the object of his jealousy and wishes him every harm. This is what Cain did to Abel. The best kind of jealousy is where the jealous individual wishes to learn from the example of the object of his jealousy and thus improve himself. In rabbinical literature, this is called "Jealousy of the scribes," which simply causes the jealous individual to become ever more scholarly.

But there is a middle kind of jealousy, not hatred, but not love and admiration either. It is when the jealous person wishes to subordinate the object of their jealousy to their own ambitions. Think of a hostile corporate takeover as opposed to a smear campaign.

I believe that Pharaoh and his Egyptian leadership possessed this kind of jealousy. They wanted Egypt to be the most powerful and successful empire in the world but were jealous of the remarkable success of the Hebrews. They held no hatred towards them, which makes sense in the context of what Joseph had done in saving Egypt. Nonetheless, they did not wish to befriend them or learn from them. They wished to harness their uniqueness for their own aims.

If this is true, we can understand the initial reluctance of Pharaoh to simply order the execution of the Jewish male babies. He told the midwives, in typical Mafia fashion, "Make it look like an accident." Make sure that the male babies are not successfully born, prevent the necessary life-saving actions during childbirth and let the babies die by themselves. To this, the midwives responded that by the time they got to the Israelite women, they had already given birth. Pharaoh had never ordered them to actually actively kill the babies. The Hebrew term used is "cause them to die." The words for kill and murder are not the same.

Pharaoh's obsession with a hostile takeover of the Israelites also explains why he wanted the male children eliminated. In the ancient world, certainly, it was the males who determine the identity of the family. If the girls would be killed, the Israelite males would then marry Egyptian girls and thus convert them to the Israelite way of life. If the boys were gone, then all that would be left were the girls who would then be married by Egyptians, guaranteeing their complete assimilation. That, after all, was Pharaoh's goal. He preferred the neater method of making it look like an accident, but when push came to shove, he ordered the boys thrown into the river.

(In a side point, our sages teach us that the stories of the book of Genesis foretell what would befall the descendants of the patriarchs in later generations. When Abraham and Sarah descended to Egypt because of a famine, Abraham requested that Sarah proclaim herself his sister instead of his wife. He was afraid that if they knew that he was her husband, they would kill him and take her away. Indeed, when she said that Abraham was her brother, that did save his life. She was then taken to be Pharaoh's wife. In a sense, this was the new Pharaoh's goal as well. Eliminate the potential husbands, and take the girls to be the Egyptian wives.)

There is a test written into the commandments to see whether we are truly free of both negative kinds of jealousy. The great sage Rabbi Akiva claimed that the essence of the Torah was the commandment, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." Somebody with one of the two negative jealousies will be incapable of fulfilling that commandment. Certainly, if they hate their competitor it will be impossible. But even if they simply view the person as a competitor, while they may not hate them, they will not be able to love them. Only one who views a competitor as a teacher will be able to observe this law.

Imagine you have a button which, when pressed, will grant your "competitor" immediate excellence and success. Would you be able to press that button? I'm not talking about a case where your competitor is seeking to put you out of business. I'm talking about a case where you both are simply doing your business and trying your best. Would you help your competitor? If your interest is to learn how to continually improve, you will press that button with gusto and then ask your competitor how he or she made it to the next level.

Now we can understand the difference between the Egyptians, on the one hand, and the Ammonites and Moabites on the other. The former were not haters. Yes, they were jealous, and they got punished for it. But they did not seek to destroy, only to subsume. But the Ammonites and Moabites refused to bring water and bread to a thirsty and suffering mass of humanity only from hatred. As a result, their character invalidates them from future entry to the nation of kindness, the nation of Israel.