Commentary for Shemot

23 Jan

In this week’s parshah the Israelites find themselves forced rapidly down to the bottom of the Egyptian food chain. Upon their arrival, while they likely did not have all of the rights that a free-born Egyptian would have, they were doing fairly well for themselves, all things considered. They owned their own land in Goshen, were allowed to practice their religion freely, and one of their own was the second most powerful person in the country. Pretty good for a relatively small immigrant community. And yet, over the course of just a few generations, they would become seen as a possible threat to the empire and ultimately be enslaved, and have their male children executed upon birth to prevent any sort of uprising, even though they had showed no signs of being interested in starting one. It almost seems crazy to think that in just a few generations they could go from the people of Joseph, the wise dream-reader who saved Egypt to being public enemy number one, but that is exactly what happened.

The turning point seems to have come when “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph (Ex. 1:8).” It seems equally crazy that someone could have risen to the position of Pharaoh in this time period who had never heard of Joseph. Joseph was a rather young man when he was brought to Egypt and he lived quite a long life; long enough to meet several generations of his descendents who were born in Egypt (Gen. 50:22-23), and was almost certainly in power in the Egyptian court for a majority of that time (the fact that he was embalmed as stated in Gen. 50:26 implies that he at least a man of wealth, if not political influence as well). How could a new Pharaoh have never heard of Joseph? It would be like someone receiving the finest education in America today and having never heard of Thomas Jefferson.

When describing Pharaoh’s lack of knowledge of Joseph, the Torah uses a very interesting word. The word “yada” means “to know,” but it is generally used more for concepts or facts than people (it is the basis of the word “mada,” the modern Hebrew word for science). When applied to people, the word takes on a connotation of a deep understanding and a very personal relationship, and is almost always used as a euphemism for sexual relations.

This new Pharaoh clearly came to power a decent period of time after Joseph’s death, and it is possible that even most of his advisors never knew Joseph personally. To him, Joseph was just a name in a textbook. He was talked about, but not there to speak in his own defense. Like many historical figures, Joseph likely received something of a reevaluation after his death, and as we have seen with many historical figures, it is likely his motives would have been questioned, or accusations brought against him that- true or not- none would dare to speak while he was alive.

Obviously nobody is perfect. Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and advocate for the Bill of Rights, supporter of democracy and the freedoms of speech and religion, was also a slaveholder and a rapist. But the idea of throwing out his contributions to history on these grounds would be ludicrous. And yet that is exactly what it seems the Egyptians- or at least some important faction of them- have done to Joseph. Whatever accusations they leveled at him to allow his enormous contributions to be overlooked in Egyptian history paved the way for his descendents to be enslaved. This behavior is what the Torah is warning us against.

When we pray on the High Holidays we do not pray for God to pretend that we have not sinned, nor do we come before God in such absolutely humility that we pretend that we have not fulfilled a single mitzvah. Instead we appear before God and ask that our sins be forgiven, or that they are balanced out by our good deeds, or that we are given the chance to prove that we can overcome our flaws and not repeat the mistakes we have made in the past. When evaluating someone, Judaism asks us to not overlook his or her faults, but also to not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Rather, we must be perfectly honest and take both the good and the bad that are an inseparable part of every human being.

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