You want to know what a shithole looks like? If we read this week’s Torah portion, we see that ancient Egypt, where they enslaved the Jews, that place was a shithole! I’m pretty sure that just about everyone would agree — from Biblical scholars to Disney Studios to the Pope — no one would hold ancient Egypt up as a model society.
Now, we can use that lovely s-hole word to describe ancient Egypt for some obvious reasons. Hot, humid, sandy, muddy; people who lived short, hard lives with no political power – and that depicts the place before the Ten Plagues which famously brought blood, frogs, lice, wild animals, diseased livestock, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and the death of the first born. With that kind of torment over eighteen months – on top of the lousy status quo – it is no wonder that a mixed multitude joined the Israelites in their Exodus.
Indeed, the things that made ancient Egypt so wretched – before and during the plagues – may seem eerily familiar to us today.
First off, like many immigrants — legal and undocumented — in the United States, the non-Egyptian migrants who lived in ancient Egypt suffered terrible treatment and poor conditions. These stemmed from the paranoia, xenophobia, and racism of the Pharaoh and the privileged of Egyptian society. Due to the migrants’ questionable status in ancient Egypt, they suffered back breaking labor, endless workdays, and managers who could treat them however they pleased. In exchange for their labors, those migrants barely earned a subsistence living. Sound like something from a fairy tale? If we visit migrant neighborhoods in America today, we can find much the same thing.
In those days, Egypt stood as one of the most powerful and wealthiest nations on earth. At various times its armies stretched across much of North Africa and up to the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. We read about their wealth in the book of Genesis which describes Potiphar’s extravagant home. Only extreme wealth inequality can concentrate so much wealth in the hands of so few. This is not only an ancient problem. In the US today, the top 1% hold nearly 40% of the nation’s wealth while the bottom 90% hold only 23% of our wealth.
Now, as the Torah makes abundantly clear, the ills of Egyptian society stemmed in large part from the arrogance, xenophobia, and racism of the Pharaoh. The oppression of the non-Egyptian Israelites and their children began when Pharaoh looked around and said, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.” Instead of seeing all of the blessings that come with a motivated, dedicated workforce, Pharaoh saw a threat that did not exist in any meaningful way. This attitude ultimately brought ruin. After each plague, Pharaoh’s arrogance would not allow him to let the Israelites go. Thus, Egyptians suffered plague after plague.
Distrust of migrants, extreme wealth inequality, and an arrogant, racist, paranoid leader made ancient Egypt a shithole. Through our Torah, we point to that regime as the prime example of evil and oppression. That regime ended up at the bottom of the Red Sea. The United States of America that I know and love holds high the values of justice and mercy, of fighting racism and insisting on the equal value of each and every human life – no matter the color of our skin or the country of our birth: Haiti or Norway, Nigeria or Sweden. We are not a country that denigrates other nations as shitholes. We are a loving and merciful people. We are still “committed to that vision of a shining “city on a hill,”” articulated first by John Winthrop and then across the political spectrum from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan. We must read this week’s Torah portion as a warning call, as a call to bring our nation back up that hill, a call to ensure that the current distrust of immigrants, extreme wealth inequality, and arrogant leadership in the United States of America does not turn our great country into a shithole at the bottom of the Red Sea.