With Rabbi Ariel ABEL.

THE ISRAELITES multiply in number and this is resented by the Egyptians. The reason for this is evident from the end of the Book of Genesis. Joseph secured a privileged place in society for his brothers and their descendants, to the envy of the Egyptian masses whom Joseph had subjugated into feudal servitude to the pharaoh. Although Joseph’s urbanisation of the people had saved them from certain famine and even death, it had also deracinated them and thrown them to the bottom of the societal pile.

Egyptian labour was now providing wealth for the pharaoh and for the ruling and priestly classes. Therefore, after Joseph’s death, the Hebrews became easy targets for national wrath and xenophobic politics. For us as 21st-century Jews, this story is a warning to avoid eliciting popular jealousy. We should take care neither to occupy positions of too much privilege nor shirk equality of burden in the national effort.

This principle is a hot topic in the state of Israel, where some Jews believe it is justifiable to reap the benefits of state-subsidised living while others work hard, pay taxes and serve in the military. This is a reckless way to live, inviting disaster upon the whole community when the available money and resources become too scarce to finance natural growth. Even though oppression was foreseen prophetically by Abraham, the cruelty inflicted upon the Hebrews by their overseers was in no way justifiable.

The Egyptians would not be exonerated for the part they played. The Hebrew redeemer was, ironically, a baby saved by the pharaoh’s daughter, who named him Moses. As an adult, Moses’ burning sense of justice does not allow him to stand idly by while a Hebrew slave is mercilessly beaten; he kills the attacker and is obliged to flee to Midian. Similarly, his first act there is to save the daughters of Jethro from bullies in the workplace. He marries Zipporah, a shepherdess and the eldest daughter of Midian’s high priest.

Later, Moses encounters God in the form of a burning bush and receives the instruction to approach the pharaoh and tell him to release the people from slavery. Moses refuses the mission, pleading inability to express himself adequately. God is angry and deputes Moses’ brother Aaron as Moses’ spokesman. Forced into the role of leader, Moses dedicates himself to spread good news of impending redemption. The people reject his optimism and slavery, conditions worsen, but God promises deliverance.

• Rabbi Abel is consultant to the For Life Projects