5/6 Jan: Shabbat Shemot comes in 3:50 pm, goes out 5:01 pm
“Joseph died, and all his brothers, and all that generation” (Ex. 1:6). And “A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (Ex. 1:7). That was all it took to transform the honoured guests into enemy strangers.
The Sages, who, after all, specialised in remembering, found this rather sudden turnaround surprising. How could something as significant as national salvation simply be forgotten, seemingly within a generation or so? They offered some surprisingly modern explanations for the Egyptians’ behaviour. Midrash Rabbah (Shemot) notes that the Sages Rav and Shmuel disagreed about the verse’s meaning – one of them [Shmuel] said that “A new king arose” meant just that – now Egypt had a new Pharaoh, and with the new administration came new policies (something we get rather a lot of in modern times, for better or worse). The other argued that the Torah would have said that the old Pharaoh died if it had meant only that a new Pharaoh was now in office. Rather, he believed, the same Pharaoh had simply changed his mind.
Yosef’s story is the longest narrative about a single individual in the Torah. In his life – and death – he left many lessons about how people treat each other and the damage we can do to each other. He also left many lessons about redemption, about rising above one’s circumstances and bringing good out of them — even pointing out to the very brothers who threw him into the pit and sold him into slavery that, by doing so, they had managed to provide the key to their own salvation from famine and their preservation as a people. Perhaps one of the reasons we are still here while the ancient Egyptians are gone is that we, unlike them, remember Yosef.
Rabbi Paul Arberman.