April 18, 2024
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When the new Pharaoh came onto the scene (Shemos 1:8), his expressed fear was that if a war breaks out, “the nation of the Children of Israel” would “join our enemies and go up from the land” (1:9-10). Rashi provides two explanations for who will “go up” and what the implications of each are. First he says it means that the Children of Israel will go up, i.e. they will leave Egypt, even though Pharaoh (and Egypt) didn’t want them to. Then, quoting Chazal, he says it means the Egyptians will be forced to leave Egypt, and their enemies will take over the country. Both approaches have shortcomings, but if we apply a geographical aspect, we can suggest a hybrid approach.

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, because the Nile flows from south to north—emptying into the Mediterranean Sea—the northern part of ancient Egypt, being downstream, was referred to as “Lower Egypt,” while the southern part, being upstream, was known as “Upper Egypt.” Goshen, where the Children of Israel lived, was in the Nile Delta, close to the Mediterranean, so Pharaoh was likely south of Goshen. Since going south meant going “up,” if the Children of Israel joined Egypt’s enemies when they attacked the Egyptian rulers, they would be “going up” from Goshen (which would be “the land” Pharaoh was referring to). In other words, Pharaoh was afraid that his enemies from the north (e.g. Canaan, Seir and the lands to the east) would attack, and the Children of Israel, who lived in Goshen, would join them in the war.

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Goshen is mentioned again in our parsha (8:18) regarding the fourth plague, when the mixture of wildlife that attacked Egypt did not enter Goshen. Seeing that Goshen was different from the rest of Egypt, Pharaoh suggested that rather than traveling three days outside of Egypt to worship God, the Children of Israel could worship God in Goshen itself (8:21, see Alshich). From Moshe’s response (8:22)—that the Egyptians would stone anyone they saw slaughtering their deities (see Rashi)—it is apparent that there were Egyptians living in Goshen. After all, if there weren’t any Egyptians in Goshen, they wouldn’t see their deities being slaughtered there! However, since Goshen had been given to Sara when an earlier Pharaoh wanted to marry her (see Pirkay d’Rebbi Eliezer 26 and Yalkut Reuveini on Bereishis 47:27), and it was designated for Yosef’s family (Bereishis 47:6)—who took possession of it (47:11 and 47:27)—it would seem to have been inhabited exclusively by the Children of Israel (as Tiferes Tzion says explicitly). Why were there Egyptians in Goshen who would see their deities being slaughtered if only the Children of Israel lived there?

When Pharaoh’s decree to kill all male infants failed because the midwives feared God (Shemos 1:21), the Torah says “ויעש להם בתים.” Who made houses for whom? Rashi, quoting Chazal, says God made “houses” for the midwives, referring to the priestly class and royalty—which are described as houses—descending from Yocheved and Miriam (the midwives). But there is another, more straightforward, way to understand these words—one that is espoused by other midrashim (e.g. Midrash Seichel Tov and Midrash Lekach Tov): Pharaoh built houses for Egyptians so that they would live amongst the Children of Israel (in Goshen) and thereby know when a child is born, so that they could kill it. Paaneyach Raza adds that this is why, during the tenth plague, God had to “jump” over the houses of the Children of Israel when killing the Egyptian firstborn—Pharaoh had forced Goshen to become integrated by building houses for Egyptians right next door to the houses of the Children of Israel. [These two ways to understand “ויעש להם בתים” are not mutually exclusive, and is one of several instances where the Torah layers multiple ideas within the same words. In this case, the first word means both “and He (God) made” as well as “and he (Pharaoh) made,” the second word refers to both the midwives and the Egyptians, and the third word refers to figurative houses and physical houses.]

While this would be enough to explain how the Egyptians would see the Children of Israel slaughtering Egyptian deities in Goshen, Netziv (Shemos 8:19) adds another layer: since the mixture of wildlife didn’t enter Goshen, the Egyptians vacated the rest of Egypt and took refuge there. Although he explains that this caused the Children of Israel to have many appreciative Egyptian neighbors who would lend them their precious items after the 10th plague, it also explains how the Egyptians would have seen the Children of Israel serving God in a way that would greatly upset them—even if it was done in Goshen, an area that had previously been inhabited only by the Children of Israel.


Rabbi Dov Kramer wrote a weekly dvar Torah from 5764-5776. In 5766 he wrote about another instance where the Torah layered two things within the same words. There, it wasn’t two different ideas, but separate occurrences of something similar. That piece is available at AishDas.org/ta/5766/kiSisa.pdf (page 2).

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