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    Slavery in Egypt, from a Dutch bible, 1728

    Slavery in Egypt, from a Dutch bible, 1728

    The labour of the Israelite slaves in Egypt was superintended by sarei missim, which the translators usually render “taskmasters” (Ex. 1:11).

    Mas, the singular of missim, is something imposed upon you by force. In modern Hebrew it conveys the idea of imposed taxation. Hence a better translation of sarei missim would be “overseers of labour gangs”.

    Onkelos adds something additional about the overseers when he says they were “evil-doing”. The implication is not merely that they had to be harsh and cruel, but that they enjoyed it. It gave them devilish pleasure to see people suffer.

    Unfortunately history has often placed the Jewish people under the yoke of oppressors who had no problem with suppressing their conscience in order to enjoy causing suffering and watching it.

    After the Holocaust, when Nazi officials sometimes claimed the defence of superior orders, i.e. that they were merely obeying a superior, the moral response suggested by the Torah was the same as it would have been in ancient Egypt, “But why did you need to like it so much?”

    Plus, of course, the question to which they had no answer, “And why didn’t you have the moral courage in the first place to refuse to obey the orders, whatever your refusal would have cost you?”

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