Shemot: A Pharaoh Who Knew Not Joseph

The tyrannical anti-Semite harmed his own people more than the Jews.

Table for Five: Shemot

Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist


A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know about Joseph.

-Exodus 1:8


Miriam Yerushalmi, CEO, S.A.N.E.; Marriage & Family Counselor; Author

Daas, to know, is first—and usually–used in the Torah to connote intimacy, the physical expression of an emotional bond. Daas in Chassidus represents the ability to bind one’s mind so completely to an intellectual concept that one can actualize it. The name Yosef means “to add.” That Pharaoh “did not know Yosef” indicates that although aware of the benefit Yosef brought to Egypt and its people, Pharaoh chose to ignore it, thereby missing the opportunity to reciprocate that good with gratitude.

Experiencing ingratitude from others can cause us to regret our good deeds or dampen our desire to continue doing good. But we should be motivated to serve Hashem to please Him, not to gain the approval of other people.

Rav Meir Chodosh (future dean of Yeshivas Chevron) was preparing to flee his Polish hometown before the Nazis arrived. He was about to board a wagon heading to safety, when his friend realized he’d forgotten a precious heirloom, and asked Rav Chodosh to wait for him. When the friend returned, only one wagon remained—with one empty seat. The “friend” took it, leaving Rav Chodosh behind. Rav Chodosh momentarily regretted having waited, but decided he had done the right thing—and with that realization, he felt transformed into a better person.

Our mitzvos have infinite value to G-d; they are the purpose of Creation. We need not bow before Pharaohs, hoping they will appreciate our actions. What matters is that “in all our ways we know Him,” and that in all our ways, G-d knows us.


Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, Founder of JewsforJudaism.org

Our sages present two views concerning the Torah’s statement that “a new king arose who did not know Joseph.”

The first view says Pharaoh died and a new king took his place. It is not uncommon when a new dynasty comes into power its leader does not know the inner workings of the previous administration.  The new king may have heard stories about Joseph, but he didn’t know the real man.

Since the Torah doesn’t say Pharaoh died the second view implies that the old king was considered new because he reversed his policies.

How can we understand this viewpoint? Why would a king like Pharaoh, who elevated a young Jewish slave to a successful position of great leadership, change his policies toward the Jews?

Perhaps he didn’t want to know Joseph anymore. Joseph broke the stereotypes Egyptians had about Jews. They were wise and not foolish, brave and not cowardly, leaders and not slaves.

Pharaoh wanted to turn back the clock and eradicate what the Jews had become.

The new king tried his best, through servitude and infanticide. But it was too late. The Jewish people had germinated from a seed into a beautiful plant. We grew deep roots which enable us to hold our ground against those who sought to uproot us. We provide shade and protection to those in need and are a light to the nations through our moral code and spiritual beliefs.

This is what the Exodus and redemption accomplished.


Rabbi Amy Bernstein, Senior Rabbi Kehillat Israel

Whether or not this is a truly new Pharaoh (as debated by commentators) it is clear that Pharaoh behaves as if he does not know Joseph. Knowing, in Biblical Hebrew, implies relationship – intimacy and empathy. If, as Rashi suggests, Pharaoh is acting as if he does not know Joseph, he is creating the distance necessary to dehumanize and oppress Joseph’s descendants. This is what always precedes oppression – a purposeful ignorance of the other which makes them less important than the people we ‘know’. But even if this is truly a new Pharaoh who never knew Joseph, we have to ask why not? How does the king of Egypt not know Egypt’s history and the derivative policies of the kings before him?

Perhaps he resents the debt owed the Hebrews? Perhaps he doesn’t want to remember that all of Egypt, including its people, had not always belonged to the king? In not remembering the contributions of Joseph, the foreigner, Pharaoh can move to enslave the Israelites. By denying the value Joseph represented to the flourishing of Egyptian society, Pharaoh can play on the fears of the Hebrews multiplying. Sforno suggests that Pharaoh never consulted the history books. This explains, in part, how he became a tyrant. We are a people of memory. We understand the mandate to remember, to own our past, to know who we are so that we may bring those experiences and the insights gained from them to bear on the world that we live in today.


Rabbi Avraham Greenstein, AJRCA Professor of Hebrew

This verse marks the beginning of the nation of Israel’s tribulations in Egypt. Interestingly, along with the ominous notes of the verse, Malbim finds in it two corresponding points of consolation and hope.

The verse describes that a new king “arose over” Egypt. This is an atypical word choice. The typical biblical phrasing would be that a new king “reigned” over Egypt. The phrase to “arise over” is more appropriate to a threat or attack, such as when Cain “arose over Abel” and killed him (Gen 4:8). This new king’s rise to power presented a direct threat to Israel. To make matters worse, the memory of Joseph’s royal authority and protection for his brethren was not preserved in this new ruler.

Following the principle that God creates the cure before He creates the malady, Malbim elucidates how these foreboding details themselves offer us reassurance. Although the intentions of the Pharaoh were indeed to harm Israel, the verse actually says that he “arose over Egypt.” It was not the nation of Israel who were ultimately harmed, but the land of Egypt. Pharaoh tried to subdue Israel, but he only succeeded in bringing plagues upon Egypt. Likewise, just as Pharaoh did not know of Joseph and his beneficence, he also did not know of how Joseph was freed from unjust imprisonment and raised to great heights. Thus, the story of Egypt, even at its very beginning, holds hope and reassurance for us that goodness and holy purpose cannot forever be stifled.


Judy Gruen, Author, The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love with Faith

Political anti-Semitism first rears its ugly head right here, in the first chapter of Exodus. Whereas the book of Genesis taught us about what it means to have relationships within a family, in Exodus we learn what it means to become a nation. The family of Jacob we read about in Genesis has grown into a people of consequence in Egypt. “The sons of Yisrael were fruitful. . . and were exceedingly strong, and the land was filled with them.” The insecure Pharaoh takes notice, and refers to the Jews as an “am,” a nation, before we self-identified as such. Pharaoh imposes increasingly draconian decrees, but they were anything but random. In a disturbing prophecy, (Genesis 15:12-14), God had told Abraham that his descendants would be enslaved in a strange land.

The anti-Semitism we experienced in Egypt was part of the Divine plan. Among other things, it taught us to empathize with the downtrodden: “And you should love the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deut. 10:19) Today’s anti-Semitism is painful, frightening, and familiar, but it is also part of the divine plan. If we, like our ancestors in Egypt, use our suffering as an opportunity to remember who we are, what our purpose is, and recharge our commitment to God and our covenant with Him, we will be strong and safe, with God’s help.

With thanks to Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, Miriam Yerushalmi, Judy Gruen, Rabbi Avraham Greenstein, Rabbi Amy Bernstein

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