ויקם מלך חדש על מצרים אשר לא ידע את יוסף
I have always viewed this verse as one of the most striking in this week’s parshah, parashot Shemot – and indeed in perhaps the entire story of the Israelites’ sojourn in Egypt; it marks a significant turning point in the narrative. How could this be that a new king wouldn’t have heard of Joseph? Recall just a few parshiot ago, Pharoah declared that none other than Joseph shall be greater in Egypt save for the throne itself. Responsible for Egypt’s extraordinary economic survival during great famine, Joseph was highly esteemed within the political structure of the Egyptian court. He was to quote Tim Rice’s wonderful libretto of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, “Pharoah’s number 2.”
So what happened between the end of Genesis when Joseph was still highly respected and certainly as well known in Egypt, one would imagine, as Rahm Emanuel is today, and the start of Exodus where apparently he is unknown?The midrash has a few thoughts on the matter that are informative.
One, that there was actually a new king. Accept the pshat, the stated text at face value. Accordingly, so much time has passed, that indeed, the previous leader’s chief side kick and all of his efforts have been long forgotten. A bit simplistic, but perhaps possible. Another, more realistic thought is that Joseph was not actually forgotten. Instead, this midrash argues, it was the same king but who succumbing to political pressure from his constituents issued new decrees as if he was not aware that Joseph ever existed. This view forwards the idea that it wasn’t just Pharoah who was capable of evil, but that the Egyptian people were so filled with fear and hatred of their neighbors that it didn’t matter that Joseph had saved lives. Moreover, this commentary suggests that despite their growing numbers, the Israelites had little or no say in the matter – no voice.
The midrash struggles with the text largely because it seems unlikely that Joseph would be so quickly forgotten following his death at the close of Genesis. It seems unlikely that all memory of that period of his influence would be gone from Egyptian consciousness. So unlikely that it demands an explanation.
The historians among us want to know exactly how much time has transpired: is the first opinion possible? Could it truly have been such a long time that Joseph and his policies were barely if at all memorable? Of course, this is a difficult if not impossible thing to assess. That being said, the question does keep academics busy, though hopefully not awake at night, and attempts have been made to historically place the Biblical narrative of Israelite descent into Egypt into the historical time line. A favored theory has the period of Israelite bondage coinciding with the overthrow of the Hyksos empire (one that was apparently favorable to the Israelites) and the rise of Ahmose I (who apparently was not). A compelling theory as archeological evidence indicates that Ahmose’s reign was marked by lots of ambitious building that demanded cheap – i.e., slave - labor. This timing would place the Israelites in Egypt around the 15-13 centuries BCE, a plausible time frame but one that frankly doesn’t fully line up with the biblical record. But, if this hypothesis is correct – which be clear is far from certain – than Ahmose I would represent that melech hadash who if he did ‘know’ of Joseph’s influence on the previous ruler, would have worked diligently to undermine it with new legislation in order to forward and strengthen his own regime.
Of course, the bible is not intended to be historically accurate. It presents at best a telescoped and elaborated version of history whose purpose is to offer a theological message. This is a natural phenomenon; aren’t we already condensing recent events into “the first decade of the 21st century” as if time is a concrete construct that can transform history into something larger? The uncertainty of the history of the bible actually helps the theology rise to the surface – the details are far less important than the story of the development of this chosen nation and where it is going.
This history, however unclear, though, is instructive particularly when coupled with a third view presented in the Midrash, namely that this phrase ‘who knew not Joseph’ should be understood as evidence that the Israelites had so fully assimilated into Egyptian society that they had willingly and completely given up their own identity and their commitment to the values of their ancestors. In essence, they allowed their unique and empowering voice to be lost and forgotten.
This pivotal verse that tells us a ‘new king who knew not Joseph’ follows immediately after the verse informing us that the Israelites had grown so in number that they filled the land. Numbers weren’t the issue. This verse in our Torah portion, vayakom melech chadash al mitzraim asher lo yada et yosef, should serve to remind us of the importance of making sure that we make a visible and audible presence whether we are present in large or small numbers. In large part, the Jewish community has succeeded in this effort throughout the modern period. Today the Jewish community is a remarkable minority representing only 2% of the American population and less than .02% of the world’s population. Yet, not only, as did Joseph, does the Jewish community maintain a vital presence on the governmental level representing this year 11% of congress as well as being represented by various lobbying arms such our own movement’s Religious Action Center, AIPAC, and the more recently formed J-Street, but Jews have made their voice known and have made a positive impact in virtually all areas of society. As a recent email that is circulating through our inboxes notes, Jews account for almost 129 of awarded Nobel Prizes since its establishment in 1895 in fields such as economics, physics, and literature as well as the highly esteemed Nobel Peace Prize. Such success requires a proactive effort and a desire to learn and promote one’s values in the community.
Perhaps the greatest failure of the Israelites in Egypt was their passivity. As their mass was growing, they somehow failed to become a functioning and integral part of Egyptian society. They remained separate enough to be identifiable, yet at the same time they failed to make a positive contribution to society which left them ultimately unknown, or at least not valued enough in order to retain protection by those in high office. The lesson of this verse and its accompanying midrashim is that it is our responsibility, not any one person’s – it wasn’t solely Joseph’s responsibility - it is everyone’s responsibility to make sure that our presence and voice is always heard so that when a new power does arise, it knows who we are and even more importantly sees us as a positive force in society. This requires us to be confident in our identity as Jews, to know the values for which we stand, and to be willing to work towards enacting them in this world. Whether it is our commitment to working towards social and economic justice, ensuring freedom from religious persecution, or working towards the eradication of poverty and abuse in this world, this is our mandate: to continue to recommit ourselves to the pursuit of Jewish values in this world – only then, can we ensure that a new king won’t rise up who doesn’t know us!