Where does our story of slavery begin?

In Parashat Shemot, Pharaoh enslaves the people of Israel, but we can point to earlier critical moments that might set this into motion.1 These are times when our own ancestors mistreated or enslaved others, perhaps laying the groundwork for the kind of oppression that would end up enslaving us. Noticing these moments is not about telling a story where slavery is the “fault” of the enslaved,2 but about becoming aware of how our choices about how to exercise power shape the communities and world our descendants will inhabit.

The first foreshadowing of our affliction at the hands of the Egyptians is when Sarah “afflicts” (ותענה) her Egyptian maidservant, Hagar (Genesis 16:6).3 This mistreatment is not unfounded—it is in response to Hagar disrespecting her (ותקל גברתה בעיניה, 16:4)—but even so some commentaries critique Sarah’s behavior, and see it as the root cause of later mistreatment of the Jewish people.4 Indeed, Radak describes Sarah’s mistreatment of Hagar in terms that foreshadow Israel’s slavery in Egypt:

רד"ק בראשית טז:ו

ותענה שרי - עשתה עמה יותר מדאי ועבדה בה בפרך… ולא נהגה שרה בזה למדת מוסר ולא למדת חסידות… כי אין ראויה לאדם לעשות כל יכלתו במה שתחת ידו.


Radak on Genesis 16:6

She was excessive and made her do backbreaking labor (בפרך)… Sarah did not act appropriately or piously… a person should not do all that is in their power to those under them…


In Parashat Shemot, too, we see that the Egyptians enslaved Israel “with backbreaking labor” (בפרך, Exodus 1:13). Although Radak does not say this explicitly, the similarity in language suggests he sees Israel’s slavery in Egypt as parallel to, and perhaps in part due to, Sarah’s treatment of Hagar.5 Radak goes on to emphasize Avraham’s error as well in not reigning in Sarah’s actions. While Sarah may not have been able to fully control herself because of her own feelings of hurt and disrespect, perhaps Avraham—having not been personally offended—carried the responsibility to intervene.

A second foreshadowing moment is when Yosef’s brothers sell him to the caravan of merchants on their way to Egypt. They are the first to create the reality of an Israelite slave in Egypt. Potifar’s wife refers to Yosef in these terms, calling him “the Hebrew slave” (Genesis 39:17). Perhaps this act of cruelty is part of what led all of their descendants to become Hebrew slaves in Egypt.

Finally, we might trace back to Yosef enslaving all of the Egyptians as an origin of our slavery at their hands. Since Yosef has a monopoly on all the food in Egypt, the Egyptians come to him and beg him to continue to sustain them as the famine worsens. In their desperation, they ask that they and their land become “slaves of Pharaoh” (עבדים לפרעה) so they won’t die of starvation, and Yosef puts this into effect (Genesis 47:19-26).

The idea that our slavery in Egypt came as a result of our own earlier acts of mistreatment surfaces explicitly in the brothers’ interaction with Yosef after their father dies, at the end of Sefer Bereishit.6 When the brothers confront Yosef, afraid that he actually hates them and will act on that hatred now that their father has died, they offer themselves as slaves. Some commentaries see this offer as their proposal for fair punishment, an echo of our second foreshadowing moment: “Since we sold you as a slave, enslave us…”7 The brothers assume it would be entirely reasonable for Yosef to enslave them since they sold him into slavery. They offer themselves as slaves to Yosef specifically, perhaps even so as to avoid a worse punishment, such as him selling them onto some other Egyptian.

How might we have expected Yosef to respond to his brothers’ offer? He has dreamed that his brothers would bow down to him (Genesis 37:6-10). On Ya’akov’s deathbed, he blessed Yosef with ruling over his brothers (49:26). And, he oversaw the enslavement of all regular Egyptians in return for supporting them in the famine (47:13-26). He might have very reasonably come to the conclusion that his brothers are in fact meant to serve him. Like he responded affirmatively when the Egyptians offered to be slaves, he could have just as easily—and maybe even more justifiably—accepted this offer from his brothers. We certainly haven’t seen God step in and explicitly communicate to Yosef that he should do anything else. In this way, the brothers’ offer to become Yosef’s slaves weaves together the second and third examples of the origins of Israel’s slavery: their selling Yosef as a slave, and Yosef’s enslavement of the Egyptians.

Given this context, it is striking that Yosef does not enslave his brothers right then and there. In contrast to Sarah’s treatment of Hagar, Yosef’s behavior here represents restraint, even when he could—and did!—exercise much harsher control over someone in his power.8 The commentary Ha’amek Davar understands Yosef as outrightly rejecting any dominion over his brothers in principle. Behind Yosef’s response to his brothers, “Am I in place of God?” (50:19, he hears echoes of the verse in Sefer VaYikra, “For Israel are servants to Me; they are My servants” (Leviticus 25:55). As servants of God, they cannot be enslaved to any other person.9 Instead of getting totally wrapped up in his own power and amplifying his position as much as possible, Yosef shows humility and restraint. Another commentary, Rabbeinu Behaye, makes this point even more strongly. Yosef fears God, and sees himself as subservient to God. He is, in effect, a servant. He therefore cannot imagine placing his brothers as his own subservients:

רבינו בחיי בראשית נ:יט

אל תיראו כי התחת אלהים אני. יאמר: אין לכם לירא מפני כי ירא אלהים אני, משועבד אליו ותחת עבדותו.


Rabbeinu Behaye on Genesis 50:19

He said: “Do not fear because I fear God. I am enslaved to [God] and under [God’s] servitude.”


How do we make sense of Yosef’s humility and restraint on his own power in response to his brothers, in light of his willingness to enslave the entirety of the Egyptian people?10 There are two ways to approach the glaring differences in his enslavement of the Egyptians and generosity to his brothers. Ramban takes one path, stressing that Yosef was generous with the Egyptians and did not fully enslave them; the Hebrew word עבד has some flexibility between “servant” and “slave.” According to Ramban, Yosef only bought their land, but not their bodies. They would be sharecroppers, rather than slaves. And even as sharecroppers, Yosef was generous (אני אתחסד עמכם) allowing them to keep the majority of the produce that usually belongs to the owner (four-fifths) and giving Pharoah only one-fifth, a reversal of the usual arrangement where the sharecropper keeps only one-fifth. They were “enslaved” only inasmuch as they were obligated to continue working the land in perpetuity, not that Pharoah could force them to do whatever he wanted, or afflict them as slaves.11

On the other hand, another commentary, the Bekhor Shor, emphasizes that the Egyptians had become fully enslaved.12 He sees the origins of Israel’s slavery in parashat Shemot coming from the Egyptian’s complaints about differential treatment:

בכור שור שמות א:יא

ובאו בעלילה על ישראל, לאמר: כל המצריים עובדים את המלך… אבל אתם אין עובדים אותו, לכן כיון שהמצריים נותנים את התבואה,אתם בנו את האוצרות לתתה בהם.


Bekhor Shor to Exodus 1:11

They came with an accusation against Israel: All the Egyptians serve the King… but you don’t serve him! Therefore, since the Egyptians provide the grain, you provide the storehouses to put it in.


This is the backstory for why the Egyptians forced the Israelites to build Pithom and Raamses, the storehouses for Pharaoh (Exodus 1:11). This comment is eye-opening in how we understand the entirety of the Exodus story. The Israelites’ enslavement isn’t in the context of everyone else being free. They were living in a society where nearly everyone was a slave, and they had only managed to avoid it thus far because of special privilege. This status was entirely unsustainable, to think it is possible to be free while embedded in a culture of oppression. The pressure came from the Egyptians all around them. Why were they all enslaved to Pharoah but the Israelites free? The people of Israel could no longer live in this fantasy and so they too became enslaved. Yosef’s admirable restraint saved his brothers, but in the end this was only temporary. Our ancestors’ misdeeds, and the context of the society of slavery Yosef put into effect, doomed the people of Israel to experience slavery themselves.

Understanding the enslavement of Israel through the lens of these key decision points for our own ancestors, we see that slavery doesn’t come out of the blue. The structures of power in any given moment can be traced back to the complexity of how power was navigated in earlier generations. We see in our ancestral line a grave error as Sarah showed a lack of discipline in her own exercise of power, even as she harbored legitimate feelings of hurt and disrespect. And we see the error of Avraham’s lack of intervention, enabling this oppressive behavior. Yosef’s brothers manage to avoid the full repercussions of selling Yosef into slavery as Yosef does not enslave them, but their descendants will not remain in this state of repreive. On the backdrop of Yosef enslaving the Egyptians, the people of Israel will suffer for their ancestors’ misdeeds. Our own slavery comes on the heels of a string of abuses of power, and in the context of a society already steeped in slavery and oppression. At the same time, we have the seeds of redemption, as Yosef does not enslave his brothers, seeing beyond his own ego and power with a sense of humility, empathy, and serving a larger purpose.

When we read our Exodus story, we have to understand that it is the Exodus of only some of many slaves in Egypt. Remembering where the story begins, we can be urged to take note of how our decisions of how to use power will have serious implications for the future. And, hopefully, we can be inspired to live up to Yosef’s conviction that people serve only God, not others, even more fully than he himself lived this out.

This is notwithstanding the prophecy God gave Avraham in Genesis 15, the berit bein ha-betarim (the covenant between the pieces). It’s also worth noting that this search for earlier moments that seed the later slavery is also a question that occupies the Haggadah—including the berit bein ha-betarim, Lavan swindling Ya’akov, and Avraham coming from a family of idol worshippers.

2 There is a dangerous history, up to the present moment, of “blaming” enslaved peoples for their own slavery. These tropes emerge around Black slavery in America, and have also been a part of the discourse of holocaust denial. I do not mean to legitimate this kind of thinking in any way.

3 The story of Sarah being abducted and mistreated by Pharoah (Genesis 12), who then suffers from plagues, and ultimately Avraham and Sarah escape with great wealth, is also a foreshadow of Israel’s mistreatment in Egypt and the Exodus story. But my focus in this essay is on earlier moments where we were responsible for afflicting others—which one might ascribe to Avraham in his treatment of Sarah in that story, but this is not the story’s focus.

Ramban goes so far as to connect Sarah’s mistreatment of Hagar, mother of Yishmael, with his contemporary “Yishmaelites” (i.e. Muslims) afflicting Jews in his own time. Ramban on Bereishit 16:6: “ותענה שרי ותברח מפניה - חטאה אמנו בענוי הזה, וגם אברהם בהניחו לעשות כן, ושמע ה' אל עניה ונתן לה בן שיהא פרא אדם לענות זרע אברהם ושרה בכל מיני הענוי:”

5 My teacher and colleague Rabbi Shai Held points to other linguistic and thematic connections between Hagar and Israelite slavery in a profound essay on Parashat Lekh Lekha, “Are Jews Always the Victims?” available here: https://www.hadar.org/torah-resource/are-jews-always-victims. He also sees these two stories as mirror images, although he is not concerned with the causal relationship.

6 For more analysis of this scene, see my essay on Parashat VaYehi, “Unfinished Reconciliation: The Indirect Apology,” available here: https://www.hadar.org/torah-resource/unfinished-reconciliation.

7 R. Avraham ben Ha-Rambam on Genesis 50:18: “הנה אנחנו מכרנו אותך לעבד לכן שעבד אותנו לעבדים ויהיה זה עונשנו לא (עונש) אחר:” See also Ha’amek Davar there: “ויאמרו הננו לך לעבדים. בחשבם כי ישטמם יוסף וימכרם לעבדים, על כן אמרו אין לך לחשוב מחשבות היאך להשיב נקם, כי הננו מתרצים להיות לך לעבדים והרי הנקם:”

8 See my teacher and colleague R. Shai Held’s discussion of how Yosef learns from Sarah’s mistakes in his essay on Parashat VaYehi, “The Majesty of Restraint, Or: Joseph’s Shining Moment,” available here: https://www.hadar.org/torah-resource/majesty-restraint. He also charts the contrast between Yosef’s initial torturing of his brothers when they come to Egypt for food and don’t know who he is to his restraint in this moment.

9 Ha’amek Davar to Genesis 50:19: “כי התחת אלהים אני. הלא אתם עבדי אלהים, וכאשר תהיו עבדים לי הלא אני מקפח כבוד שמים ומקבל את עבדיו לי לעבדים, והיאך אפשר לעשות כן, הבמקום אלהים אני שאקבל את עבדיו לי לעבדים. ובדרך שאמרה תורה בס' ויקרא כ"ה נ"ה כי לי בני ישראל עבדים עבדי הם, ואין רצון הקדוש ברוך הוא ואין כבודו שיהיו נמכרים לעבדים לזולתו.” This is based on the Rabbinic interpretation of Leviticus 25:55—“My slaves, and not the slaves of slaves”—as found, for example, on Kiddushin 22b.

10 Minus the Egyptian priests. Obviously, on a peshat level, this is because he treats family differently. But that answer is not totally satisfying, especially as we have seen that he had reason to believe his brothers would actually be subservient to him.

11 Ramban on Genesis 47:19.

12 Thank you to Jamie Weisbach, member of Hadar’s Advanced Kollel, who brought this comment of the Bekhor Shor to my attention.