There is something profoundly bizarre about going into the Sabbath with a world-changing event on the horizon.
On the last day of 1999, it was Y2K. We welcomed Shabbat Shemot, the Sabbath on which we start reading the Book of Exodus, without knowing what exactly would happen when all the clocks hit midnight. Would planes fall from the sky? Would all our bank accounts be wiped out? Would nuclear missile silos open? But the day passed uneventfully, we made havdala, and when we logged on to dial-up Internet, everything seemed fine. None of what we’d feared actually occurred, and 2000 was off to a great start.
But that’s not how 2000 ended in Israel.
A year later, it was time for Shabbat Shemot again — January 19-20, 2001. A new president was being sworn in, after a contentious election in which the popular winner went home and the electoral winner had a cloud of suspicion swirling over him. Would eight years of peace and prosperity come to a screeching halt? Could the president-elect, intellectually incurious and surrounded by ideologues, unite the nation? But the day passed uneventfully, we made Havdala to mark the end of Sabbath, and everything seemed fine. None of what we’d feared actually occurred, and 2001 was off to a great start.
But that’s not how 2001 ended in America.
So here we are, 16 years after that, counting the hours until inauguration yet again. It will be mid-morning in DC when Shabbat Shemot starts this year in Israel. We will read, as we do every year, that portentous eighth verse: “A new king arose upon Egypt who knew not Joseph.” Egypt — Miṣr in Arabic, Miṣrayim in Hebrew — is under new management, as it were, but the sages of the Talmud argue about its nature:
Rab and Samuel — one said that he was really new, while the other said that his decrees were made new… Who knew not Joseph — it was as if he did not know him at all.
Interestingly, the phrase “to rise upon” can also be rendered “to attack” (cf. Deut. 22:26). This innovative pharaoh ultimately brings ruin upon Egypt; his measures to neutralize the potential military threat of the Hebrews lead to inglorious defeat. But the first step on that path is to disavow Joseph — not just because he is the most prominent Hebrew in recent Egyptian history, but because of the revolutionary decrees he instituted.
Yes, it’s that part of the Joseph story which seems to be the least compelling: Genesis 47. After Jacob and family come down to Egypt, but before he is on his deathbed, the Torah details at length how Viceroy Joseph runs the country during the years of famine. You see, for Joseph, it is not enough that he has been freed from bondage or that his family is safely ensconced in nearby Goshen. He fundamentally changes Egyptian society in three ways:
- The people sell everything and become “slaves to Pharaoh.”
- They are moved into cities.
- The priests (kohanim) remain independent.
It’s rather ingenious. Slavery is not abolished, but redefined. Since everyone is a slave, no one is a slave; but they are not tied to the land. The sole exception is the priestly class. Now, these are not the wise men of Pharaoh’s court, the hartumim, but rather the kohanim. They are an independent, protected class who are provided for throughout the famine and maintain their land afterwards. Joseph’s own father-in-law is prominent among them.
However, the new pharaoh of Shemot does not acknowledge Joseph: new in flesh, new in spirit, he appeals to “his people” and turns them against “the Israelite people” (Exod. 1:9). It is the latter who really deserve to be slaves, and once they are “cruelly enslaved” (ibid. v. 13), they stop being Israelites and become Hebrews — the ethnic descriptor for Joseph when he was a slave.
But what about the kohanim, Joseph’s insurance policy against tyranny? They have been disappeared. Hartumim are definitely around, in Pharaoh’s court, but the kohanim are nowhere to be seen. It is only when Moses flees for his life from the sword of Pharaoh to Midian that he finds a kohen — and marries his daughter. Then the God of the Hebrews appears, in order to redeem the Israelites.
This is the deeper meaning of “who knew not Joseph.” The new Pharaoh definitely is aware of Joseph, antagonistic to his legacy, determined to undo his reforms… and make Egypt great again. For “his people,” of course.
I don’t know what world we’ll find when we emerge from Shabbat Shemot 5777. I doubt it will look much different. But it is upon us to make sure that the new king acknowledges that denying progress is no path to greatness. Unknowing is no way to lead.