.וְכַאֲשֶׁר יְעַנּוּ אֹתוֹ, כֵּן יִרְבֶּה וְכֵן יִפְרֹץ; וַיָּקֻצוּ, מִפְּנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל
But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad. And they were adread because of the children of Israel.
The book of Exodus opens with a scene that is at once terrifying and today, chillingly familiar. A foreign population—the children of Israel—have dwelled in the nation of Egypt for generations, and have slowly become a large and mighty population. But the strength of this group frightens the national leadership, and their loyalty is questioned by the Pharaoh: “In the event of war, they may join with our enemies…and rise from the ground.” (Exodus 1:10)
As the narrative unfolds, both Pharaoh’s fear and his oppression of the Israelites intensifies. The children of Israel are enslaved, and eventually Pharoah calls for the murder of their newborn children. The text of Parashat Shemot tells the story of the brave midwives who defy Pharoah’s order, but the Talmud offers another story of how the infants of the story are saved. In Tractate Sotah, Rabbi Avira relates a story of the women of Israel leaving their cities to give birth under apple trees, their birthing attended by an angel and their children nursed by rocks that miraculously flow with milk and honey. The entire midrash is fascinating, but perhaps most extraordinary is the following:
“And once the Egyptians would notice them, realizing that they were Jewish babies, they would come to kill them. But a miracle would occur for them and they would be absorbed by the earth. And the Egyptians would then bring oxen and would plow upon them, as it is stated: ‘The plowers plowed upon my back; they made long their furrows’ (Psalms 129:3). After the Egyptians would leave, the babies would emerge and exit the ground like grass of the field, as it is stated: ‘I caused you to increase even as the growth of the field’ (Ezekiel 16:7)” (Bavli Sotah 11b)
While many midrashim exist that tell of the miraculous qualities of the Land of Israel, this rabbinic narrative is striking in that it occurs in Egypt. Pharoah and his people are afflicting the children of Israel, but the earth allies itself with the Israelites, protecting their children. From this concealing of the Israelite babies under the earth to the parting of the Red Sea so many years later, the natural forces of the Egyptian terrain appear to be in open revolt against the injustice perpetrated by Pharaoh. The Egyptian tyrant opens the parashah with a fear that the Israelite people will one day “rise up from the ground” against him. As a direct result of his decrees and continued violence, says the midrash, Pharaoh’s fears come to pass: The swallowed Israelite children emerge, safe, from the plowed earth, rising up from the soil in defiance of his murderous edicts.