by Ari Hart
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 land of Goshen.
• Joseph leading a huge, Pharoah-sponsored funeral procession of Jacob's body back to Canaan.
• Brutal slavery
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: (Genesis 43:32)
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.
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 de-humanization 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 don’t 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.