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In Parashat Shemot, the pasuk says

וַיֹּאמֶר, אֶל-עַמּוֹ: הִנֵּה, עַם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל--רַב וְעָצוּם, מִמֶּנּוּ

Pharaoh was, for whatever reason, worried that the Israelites had become more numerous than the Egyptians, so he imposed extra taxes on them and eventually enslaved them. But if the Israelites were actually greater in numbers than the Egyptians, why did they submit to slavery? Why didn't they fight back against their oppression? They should have been able to overcome with their greater numbers.

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As usual, Mefarshim quoted are from here:

Part 1: Were the Jews actually greater in number than the Egyptians?

Ralbag, Chizkuni, R"A Ben Harambam and others explain that obviously the Jewish population had not grown larger than the population of the entire Egypt, rather, they were growing at a greater rate than the Egyptians, who feared that at some point the Jews would eventually outnumber them. This approach can be read into the Passuk (1:9) וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אֶל־עַמּ֑וֹ הִנֵּ֗ה עַ֚ם בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל רַ֥ב וְעָצ֖וּם מִמֶּֽנּוּ in one of two ways - either "they will soon be greater and stronger than us" or "they are multiplying and strengthening faster than us" (see Mefarshim).

Others (RDZ Hoffman, see also Nechama Leibowitz) suggest that Pharaoh simply lied to the nation in order to convince them. Daat Mikra (Shemos 1:9, fn16) notes a number of parallels including Bereishis 26:26, Bamidbar 22:6.

There are, however, some commentaries and Targumin that (possibly) understand Pharaoh's comment to be literal. The most significant and clearly stated would be Ramban 1:10, who gives a number of reasons why Pharaoh did not attack Benei Yisrael directly, the third of which is that the Jews were as strong as the Egyptians at that point. According to those Mefarshim, we must see how the Egyptians enslaved them.

Part 2: How did the Egyptians enslave them?

Ramban, based on the above, follows many Mefarshim in explaining that the Egyptians tricked them into working for them as "taxes" (see 1:11), which began to slowly weaken them, and the Egyptians were eventually able to kill the Jewish male children as well. There are a number of adaptations of this understanding within the other commentaries, but almost all of them work within a similar framework.

The famous Chazal on this is found in Sotah 11b, where the word "Befarech" (1:13) is explained as "Befeh Rach", with soft words, that the Egyptians convinced them and paid them to work originally (Rashi there in above link). This is quoted by Chizkuni 5:4, Daas Zekeinim 1:11 and 5:4, and many others.

In conclusion, even according to those Mefarshim who felt that the Jewish nation were strong enough to take on the Egyptians before the enslavement occured, once they were already enslaved, they were certainly too weak and broken to fight back, as evidenced by the rest of the Parsha and the commentaries brought above.

  • @sam thanks, I am trying to be marbitz it, as it is awesome! – רבות מחשבות Jan 5 '18 at 4:54
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I think you're looking in a wrong pond by trying to find "natural causes" to it.

The Jews were enslaved because they knew they should be enslaved.
They had the prophecy and the tradition, and they knew the benefits of their enslavement.

When Abraham asked G-d how will he inherit the land, G-d prophesized him with the Egypt exile. The Ariz"l's tradition says G-d wanted them to totally lose their materialism and to become "disconnected" from the physical. Then they will be ready to receive the Torah and be entitled to inherit the Promised Land. Think about going to the dentist. Your kid might ask why you've been hurt. But you'll explain that was made on purpose.

The Jews knew sooner or later that will come. Although some claim that they could replace enslavement with learning Torah, but this does not seem possible after the prophecy.

That desire (to fulfill the prophecy) was so strong, they didn't want to end it prematurely when Moses came only 86 years after it started, instead of the promised 400 (there are different ways of counting it). Moses explained how the rest of slavery can be exchanged for Matan Torah and more.

  • Sources? In addition, this while idea is counterintuitive and against the simple reading of many, many pesukim and maamarei chazal, which imply or state clearly that the Jews did not why to be slaves. Plus, which counting says that they would be slaves for 4100 years? – רבות מחשבות Feb 8 at 3:07
  • @רבותמחשבות You miss the whole point of the G-d's prophecy. Why did G-d say that? Why the 400 years were needed at all? What was the point of going down to Egypt? If you can't answer those question, you won't understand why would the Jews want it. – Al Berko Feb 8 at 11:16
  • I can't read God's mind, so I don't have definitive answers to those questions, but your answer does not stand on its own. For example, according to this approach, why didn't the Jews try to get enslaved by Egypt earlier on? Certainly the great Shevatim wanted to fulfill Hashem's prophecy even more than the assisted Jews later on! – רבות מחשבות Feb 8 at 14:36
  • Also, according to this approach, why did some Jews flee Mitzraim 30 years early, if they wanted to be enslaved? Or rejoice when Moshe came to take them out? To the contrary, they should have rejoiced when Paroh increased their burden according to your logic, yet we see that they complained. – DonielF Feb 9 at 1:03
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    Abraham definitely did not go to Egypt to "start working on it"... – רבות מחשבות Feb 10 at 2:18

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