Table for Five: Shemot
In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.
– Ex 1:8
Rabbi Pinchas Winston, Thirtysix.org
We’ve seen the difference one man makes. A nation can have the potential to be good or bad, but it is the leader who often determines the actualization of either.
Germany was nationalistic before Hitler came along, and many perhaps were already anti-Semitic. But until Hitler used that nationalism to dehumanize the Jewish people and other unwanted peoples, Jews lived and worked side by side with Germans. One hundred thousand Jews opted to remain in Germany between 1933 and 1939 (Haavara Agreement) because they claimed to be just as German as the next German. Some Germans may have agreed, but Hitler and his people did not, and by the time these Jews realized the truth, it was too late to leave. All of them died in the Holocaust instead.
It happened in Spain as well in the 1400s. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella had been friends of the Jews until a virulently anti-Semitic priest came along and changed their minds. The result was expulsion of an entire nation in 1492. It wasn’t the first time this happened in history, and it certainly wasn’t the last.
It’s a very short verse with a powerful message that has pretty much been ignored by generations of Jews. The civility we enjoy today can change at a moment’s notice if the “right” person comes along to do it. Given our long and often difficult history, it would be wise to look out for such potentially destructive leaders and remain ready to respond appropriately.
Rabbi Gershon Schusterman, Author, “Why God Why?”
The comity between Pharaoh and the Israelites ended when Joseph died. Joseph was the national hero who saved the region from famine and also brought it Divine awareness. Once they forgot Joseph, that’s when the plotting to subjugate the Israelites began.
Abraham encountered: “There is no fear of God in this place and they will slay me to take my wife.” In the pagan world licentiousness ran rampant as for them there was no God who set moral standards for mankind.
Joseph unabashedly shared his awareness of God with all, including Pharaoh who fashioned himself as a God. When Joseph rebuffed the advances of his master’s wife, he said, “How can I perpetrate this great evil and have sinned against God?” When he was imprisoned, the warden gave him supervisory responsibilities because he sensed that, “God was with him and whatever Joseph did God made successful.” When Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I understand that you interpret dreams,” he responded: “This is beyond me; God will respond to Pharaoh’s welfare.”
Later Pharaoh said to his servants: “Is there another like Joseph, a man in whom is the spirit of God?
However, when Moses said to the new Pharaoh “Let my people go,” Pharaoh responded “I do not know God, nor will I let Israel go.”
As long as Joseph was known and his God’s influence was pervasive, the fear of God prevented Pharaoh from running roughshod over the Israelites. When Joseph died and God was no longer known, their subjugation began.
Nili Isenberg, Judaics Faculty, Pressman Academy
Rav and Shmuel disagreed about the nature of this new king. Like other great rabbinic pairs, Rav and Shmuel were known for their disagreements. Rav usually took a literal interpretation of the text, whereas Shmuel relied more on context. Rav was known as an expert in ritual law, whereas Shmuel was an expert in civil law. Regarding our verse, Rav said that it refers to an actual new king; Shmuel said that it was the same king but that he made new edicts (Talmud Sotah 11a).
What is the significance of their disagreement? From these two Babylonian Jewish leaders we can learn abiding truths about the nature of Jewish life in exile, truths that resonate to this day when we continue to ask “Why do they hate us?”
Rav’s opinion illustrates an anti-Semitism born of ignorance, when a “new king” fears us, our traditions, and our values. To prepare for such a time, we must do everything we can to advocate and educate.
Perhaps, however, there is also a more sinister story here, of someone who stands to gain from a strategy of “new edicts” that serve to empower and enrich him while stripping away the humanity of the other. Unfortunately, taking such people on a tour of a Holocaust museum won’t change their hardened, evil hearts.
What we have learned from centuries and millennia of this story on repeat is that the Psalmist was right: Ultimately, it is better to seek protection in God than in man (Psalm 118).
Rabbi Dr. Jason Weiner, Cedars-Sinai Hospital
Some see this verse as lamenting the passing of the generations. This interpretation focuses on the end of the verse: new generations often forget about their predecessors. They would be so much better off, the argument goes, if they would look back and be like those who came before them rather than attempting to re-invent the wheel.
But I prefer to see this verse as a challenge, not a lament.
One of my concerns about new medical innovations that seek to prevent ageing is what incentives would there then be for the old to make way for the young? And if the young aren’t given space to lead, might this lead to a prolongation of functional immaturity? If the young have no incentive to lead, and the old have no desire to pass the baton to a new generation, what will happen to human progress and social advancement? Furthermore, if people knew they could have very long lifespans, might there be less motivation to accomplish and innovate in the first place?
This interpretation focuses on the beginning of the verse: a new generation will arise. It must. That is the way of the world. Our challenge is both for the older generation to recognize that a time comes to make way for the younger generation, and for the younger generation, as they take on the mantle of leadership, to step up and learn from those who came before them. Even as they innovate, will they remember the crucial lessons and precedents of the past?
Rabbi Rebecca Schatz, Associate Rabbi at Temple Beth Am
Early advice in a new job is, “Listen and learn about the place and people who are integral to the community.” But what advice was a new Pharaoh given? How could he have “not known” Joseph, responsible for much of Eqypt’s success and strength? Assuming everyone in the inner circle of power knew of Joseph, we might read this verse as, “…the new Pharaoh did not choose to know Joseph.” Joseph might have changed with age, leaving an altered legacy at Court. After all, he’d been at least three different characters in Torah: boastful brother; prince of Egypt; heroic son and savior.
Maybe New Pharaoh didn’t want to be dependent on previous administrations’ advisors. Maybe resentful advisors saw an opportunity to supplant Joseph’s influence. The idea that Pharaoh feared we would grow too numerous and powerful could support this idea.
I wonder why the king—new or old–did not instinctively value this relationship. Why do we separate from people at the moment we could connect with them most deeply or learn from them most? Why are we afraid of success through partnership and dialogue? Our tiny people have often been slandered as, “too numerous” or “too powerful.” We are surrounded by people who do not know us. Unfamiliarity and ignorance easily turn to fear and hatred. We should want to renew ourselves and forge new relationships with others so that they will choose to partner us rather than fear us.
With thanks to Rabbi Pinchas Winston, Rabbi Gershon Schusterman, Nili Isenberg, Rabbi Dr. Jason Weiner, and Rabbi Rebecca Schatz
Image: Pharoahs of Egypt
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