Parshas Shemos begins with Pharaoh's declaration of war against the Jewish people warning the Egyptian people that the Jewish people are a grave threat and that they must be enslaved. While this appears to set a template that will be followed by regimes and anti-Semites throughout history, there is no real explanation for Pharaoh's attitude. Why have the Jews which were once welcomed now treated as a menace and eventual targets for genocide?
Pharaoh's words give part of the answer. The Jews are numerous. They are reproducing in large numbers. This is a theme that obsessively recurs with both Pharaohs throughout the Parsha. Both repeatedly rant about the numerousness of the Jews. They set out to interrupt Jewish family life and kill Jewish babies. It is somehow the key point for the Pharaohs.
But this fails to explain Pharaoh's assertion in his speech to the Egyptian people in which he fears that when war comes, the Jews will unite with their enemies and go up from the land. There seems to be no rational reason for this belief, yet there is a revealing slip of the tongue in this. Pharaoh says, VeAlah, And they will ascend. Where the previous Pharaoh used the word Ba'ah to Yosef, Coming, to describe the immigration of the Jews from Caanan to Egypt thus putting both lands on an equal level, this Pharaoh describes the Jews as ascending, rising up from the land, as if the land of Egypt is inferior somehow.
Egypt was certainly not inferior as a country. The land was rich, the civilization was advanced and there was plenty of wealth. What factor could then create that inferiority. A moral factor. A difference in values between the two peoples explains why Pharaoh would fear that the Jews might view Egypt as deprvaded and finding they had more in common with the enemy, wish to leave the land.
The question of what that difference was, goes to the invisible question no one asks about Pharaoh's speech. Yaacov's family came to Egypt as 70 people. They multiplied amazingly but still why were the Egyptians so frightened about their increase in numbers? Weren't the Egyptians reproducing themselves? Surely an entire nation should be able to outbalance a few immigrants.
The answer lies at the core of the conflict because indeed the Egyptians were not reproducing. We are told that the new Pharaoh did not know Yosef. He did however know of the famine. An event like that which so drastically changed the country's government and fortunes could not have been forgotten. The Egyptian civilization was not primitive, it was the most advanced of the time. Its leaders could be evil but not stupid. They did not simply forget about the famine and assume that after it ended they would be safe from now on. They took action.
When we are told that the new Pharaoh did not know Yosef, this has far greater implications than the harsh treatment of the Jews. Yosef created a context for the famine. Each time Yosef emphasized the divine role in this, he was repeating the point that the famine was caused by G-d's will. It was not random chance or weather but a divine force. Not knowing Yosef also meant the Egyptian leaders did not know G-d and their view of the famine was materialistic and practical. They no doubt took various agricultural measures to prepare for future famines. But they also undertook one of the more obvious steps, which today is also repeatedly urged as a means of fighting famine in the third world. Population control.
Population control would maintain a more limited population to insure that famine would be less of a threat so the country would not outstrip its available resources. This would explain the Egyptian obsession with the growth of the Jewish population. Throughout the Parsha both Pharaohs obsessively return to the question of the size of the Jewish population, which was not controlled, in comparison to the size of the Egyptian population which was. It also explains how the Jewish population could so easily outstrip the Egyptian one. It was because the Jewish population was growing and the Egyptian one wasn't.
How did Egypt control its population? Well we see how Pharaoh attempts to control the Jewish population, through infanticide. Infanticide is a common means still today of a crude population control in the third world and has been throughout history. Egypt was no different. Pharaoh's program of infanticide aimed at Jews very likely mirrored their own program for Egyptian children. Jewish male babies are killed while female babies are kept alive, likely because Egyptians killed their female babies and kept their male babies alive, thus resulting in a deficit of female babies Pharaoh hoped to compensate for from the Jewish population. The same situation exists today in China where a deficit of 18 million female babies because of abortion and infanticide is set to create havoc when the generation comes of age.
Thousands of years later Greek and Roman writers would note and alternately praise and condemn the Jews for not practicing infanticide, precisely because it was so common in the world of the time. Even today religious families are often condemned for having many children and a value system that says aborting unwanted babies is preferable. The Jewish people however who kept to their heritage considered this an abomination in any period. Thus the Jewish midwives refused Pharaoh's demand, not for nationalistic reasons, but because they feared G-d.
Two cultures were living side by side with a profound difference in their approach to human life. The Egyptians saw a growing uncontrolled population of Jews that threatened their survival and way of life and a return of the famine. The Jews knew that the famine was the work of G-d and created by his will. This situation could not continue for very long. As the dominant power the Egyptians enslaved the Jews and attempted to control the Jewish population by interrupting family life and killing Jewish babies.
Throwing babies into the Nile, which the Egyptians viewed as a god representing fertility and agricultural success, had the form of a ritual human sacrifice. And indeed the Egyptians had been practicing infanticide in the hopes of averting a famine. The first plague that strikes turns the water of the Nile to blood. This plague is non-lethal but a warning that there will be blood to come. Like Hevel's blood crying out from the earth, the blood was the blood of the Jewish children the Egyptians had murdered.
The plagues that followed assaulted every Egyptian conception of the material world and the powers they thought were invested in it. The river, the sun, animals, the earth and everything they had worshiped and depended on turned against them. Plague by plague it was demonstrated to them that G-d was above all natural elements and in control of them. It was G-d who brought these plagues as he had brought the famine. In forgetting that the Egyptians had also forgotten all morality.
Only with the final plague was the demonstration complete with the ultimate devastating act of justice that struck at the heart of what had been the Egyptian value system. In a culture that practices infanticide, the first born males are of highest value and female children of the least value. The death of the first born destroyed what the Egyptians had engaged in mass murder to protect. As the Egyptians had selected out inferior children to die, G-d selected out those they had kept alive in a punishment not only for the Jewish children they had murdered but for their own.
The culture of infanticide that had been at the heart of the enslavement of the Jews was destroyed. It was why this and nothing else before it had broken Pharaoh's will to resist. Previous plagues had killed but none had struck so at the fundamentals of their culture. When they proclaimed, "Kulanu Meitim", they were expressing the overwhelming devastation that had left them literally dead.