Forgetting - and Remembering - Yosef

As we begin a new book, we are introduced to a new king - and to a storyline that seems, to modern Jewish readers, all too familiar. The new Pharaoh is acutely aware of the presence of the Jews in his kingdom; so aware, in fact, that he feels he must devise a “final solution” to deal with them. The Jews, he says, are a fifth column; they are not loyal citizens, they can’t be trusted. If Egypt is threatened by any external force, the Jews will quickly join the enemy and destroy the Egyptian way of life.

Yosef died, and all his brothers, and all that generation. But the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them. A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Yosef. And he said to his people, “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 leave the land.” (Shmot 1:6-10)

As is often the case with hatred, there is something irrational in this argument. The new Pharaoh claims to be worried that, in case of war, the Jews will take advantage of the situation and bolt. But if the Jews are too numerous, and that is the source of the threat, why should Pharaoh be worried that they will leave? This sounds like a solution, not a problem.

Moreover, how can Yosef, the man who saved the Egyptian economy from collapse and an entire generation from starvation, have been forgotten? Yosef had filled the royal coffers and turned Egypt into a regional superpower; even a new Pharaoh should have been appreciative. Some posit that this new Pharaoh was from a different genealogical line, or perhaps even a foreigner who had conquered Egypt. Either way, the Jews, a distinct and insular minority, were now singled out for special treatment.

Unlike this new Pharaoh, there were those who remembered Yosef, and acted courageously in the face of personal danger, as Yosef had done generations earlier: The midwives. When ordered by Pharaoh to murder all newborn Jewish males, the Torah attests to the source of the courage and morality of these brave women:

The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live. (Shmot 1:17)

The language is reminiscent of someone else who deeply feared God despite the personal consequences:

After a time, his master’s wife cast her eyes upon Yosef and said, “Lie with me.” But he refused. He said to his master’s wife, “Look, with me here, my master gives no thought to anything in this house, and all that he owns he has placed in my hands. No one wields more authority in this house than I, and he has withheld nothing from me except yourself, since you are his wife. How then could I do this most wicked thing, and sin before God?” (Bereishit 39: 7-9)

As a reward for his religious conviction Yosef soon found himself in prison, in an even more dire predicament than mere slavery. But his descendants, and all of the Children of Israel, knew the rest of the story as well: That slave-turned-prisoner soon became empowered, respected, and free. Yosef’s meteoric metamorphosis was their inspiration; it was the microcosm of their own collective redemption. Even when Yosef seemed to suffer a setback due to his morality, that setback was temporary, and it set the stage for Yosef’s great leap of fortune: One day an imprisoned slave, and the next, a mighty, free man.

Yosef’s life in Egypt stood as an example for all the Children of Israel who suffered through the dark period of slavery and abuse in Egypt. His incredible rise to power made belief in redemption possible. Even if there would be setbacks, they knew that they, too, would be free. But even more than the belief in their freedom, what they learned from Yosef was how to achieve that freedom: The Israelites learned from Yosef that the path to freedom is paved with morality. So long as they followed Yosef’s lead and remained attuned to the voice of God, they, like Yosef, would be redeemed.

Perhaps this is precisely what bothered Pharaoh about this peculiar people: He did not suspect them of dual loyalty because he understood that they had loyalty to only one King, they obeyed only one set of rules, and they answered to only one authority: They were loyal to God, and to one another. Pharaoh’s “amnesia” was very selective: He chose not to remember Yosef, and not to remember God (Shmot 5:2) – but neither God nor Yosef were forgotten. The Children of Israel remembered them both.

For more essays and lectures on Parashat Shmot: