In the preceding Torah portions we have seen Joseph exercise his power with great loyalty on behalf of Pharaoh and Egypt. He not only saves everyone from famine, but in the process makes Pharaoh even richer by using the stored grain to bring all agricultural land under the ownership of Pharaoh and render all of Egypt’s inhabitants as surfs and sharecroppers to the king. Yet in this week’s Parsha, Shemot, we surprisingly read the way in which Pharaoh turns on Joseph’s memory and Joseph’s people.
According to one opinion this is not in fact a new king but the same one who, as shocking and sudden as it seems, has changed his mind about the Jews. Reading the narrative sets us on edge – we were loyal, we were friends to Pharaoh, and now he is out to enslave us and kill all of our male children, due to what seems like an irrational fear: “Lest war come and the (Israelite) people join against us with our enemies.” What have we done to make Pharoah suspicious? What happened to all the good Joseph did for Pharaoh and the loyalty the Jewish people have shown?
The story in this week’s parsha is often seen as a paradigm for the anti-Semitism in the history of our exile. The Jewish people move from place to place – Spain, Iraq, Germany – they participate loyally in the civic life of the country, and then the time comes when attitudes change, as they invariably will if history is any teacher, and the Jew is reminded that they are different. The non-Jew worries that the Jew, who they feel is with us but not of us, will turn, or has already turned, against them.
When each of our many wonderful conversion candidates first approaches me to convert I tell them that if history is any teacher the odds are good that their grandchildren or great grandchildren will have to pay for their decision to become a Jew, possibly with their lives. Intellectually, I know that this is true, but whenever I say it I imagine they must think I am joking or paranoid, as Jews comfortably occupy the highest echelons of politics, economics and intellectual life in our country. And yet, it was true in Egypt, Spain, and Germany. Certainly, America seems different, and it is natural to think that our America is different – but is this naive?
We live in the strongest, longest lasting, most ethical democracy in the world. Yet to watch the news this past week, as we probably all did, and see the windows of the capital smashed, the seats of congress casually occupied by the unelected – I felt less secure, not just as an American but especially as a Jew. In that moment, I wondered, in our great country, might there ever arise “a king who does not know Joseph.”