Transitions—and lessons about transition—abound in the Torah reading for this week.
One transition is simply the move to the new book of Shemot (Exodus). The prelude of Breishit (Genesis) is now complete, and the stage set for the story detailing the emerging national identity of the ancient Hebrews. No longer are they a single clan; they have become the foundation of a larger people. They are at the cusp of becoming a nation; Jacob’s sons are about to become The People of Israel. They have grown in from “few in number” to “a swarm” so large that the Egyptian leadership fears for their political safety and national security.
Similarly, the Egyptians are in the midst of their own political and cultural transition. In fact, the political transition generates the cultural. The Torah offers a simple observation that in turn has profound consequences.
“And a new king arose that did not know Joseph.” (Ex. 1:8)
Let’s appreciate the scene. We have the announcement that a new leader has come into power; yet as noted by many traditional sources the announcement is somewhat strange in that it does not mention the death of the previous monarch. This transition seems to unexpectedly burst through the text, absent a sense of history, and absent a sense of tradition. The new Pharaoh’s ascension seems to reflect a revolutionary discontinuity with the nation’s past. One wonders if there was there an unrecorded coup d’état. In turn, he pursues a genocidal course of action against the Hebrews that eventually proves disastrous for his own people. The scope of this tragedy is so extensive, it is only natural to wonder if there could have been any alternatives.
One of the scholars who considered the possibilities of alternatives was Rabbi Meyuhas ben Eliyahu, a Sephardic rabbi in early 20th century London. In his commentary on our verse, Rabbi Meyuhas suggests that Pharaoh’s decree was due to the fact “He did not know the benefits that Joseph had brought to the country, which would have made him favorably inclined to the family.”
In other words, had the ancient Pharaoh enjoyed a greater sense of his own national history, he could have saved his own people—indeed his own family—great grief and loss. World history would have a radically different narrative. He could have been a hero for the manumission of the Hebrew slaves and the catalyst for their return to the land of Canaan. Instead, to this day the term “pharaoh” is slang in modern Egyptian Arabic for a despotic boss.
This appreciation of the verse is applicable to leadership on any level, not just for politicians and political parties preparing for national elections in Israel. It is germane to the lay and professional leaderships throughout the Jewish world, from major international organizations to local Federations and congregations. It suggests a cautionary lesson about the pursuit of change for the sake of change: revolutionary change usually entails a violation of long-established values. On the other hand, radical and transformative change from an evolutionary approach that respects the past can pave the way for a fulfilling future. It almost seems to matter less what the change is, relative to the process that has engendered it. Good process yields positive outcomes; poor process portends disaster. We all know the end of this Pharaoh: his poor process in favor of revolutionary change resulted in the exact outcomes he hoped to avoid. Change is indeed the only constant of human life, and we would do well to heed the lesson from this week’s Torah reading. Let’s make sure that the change we seek is change we will want to keep.