This week’s parashah, Shemot (Ex. 1:1 – 6:1) begins the story of the oppression of the Israelite people in Egypt and how God redeemed them from Egyptian slavery to become a covenant people to God. By chapter 2 we will learn of the birth of Moses and how God chose him to free the people from Pharaoh’s tyranny and lead them to the wilderness. But first, in chapter 1, the story picks up where it left off, with the death of Joseph. Joseph died, as did his brothers and all that generation, but their offspring multiplied greatly, filling the land. Then a new Pharaoh ruled Egypt, one who did not know Joseph and what he had done for Egypt, and, frightened by the Israelite population explosion, pressed them into forced labor.
These few verses come to teach us two things: First, the majority population of a place can be easily coerced to feel threatened by an increase in the numbers of a minority. Although the Israelites were still a tiny percentage of the Egyptian people, Pharaoh reasoned that Israel might pose a military threat to Egypt by siding with Egypt’s enemies, and the Egyptian people readily agreed. Second, political situations change quickly, and memories are short. Jacob and his sons were heartily welcomed to Egypt as honored guests, but all it took was a new ruler to turn the Egyptians from hosts to oppressors.