To Unleash Your Inner Yosef, You Must Forget Yosef (Eruvin 53)

The Hebrews were celebrities in Egypt.  Their brother, Yosef, was responsible for saving the country from famine and economic collapse.  The entire region now paid tribute to the country, being the sole source of nourishment during the challenging years of drought.  And so when a Hebrew walked down the street, they held their head high, proud of the good fortune their family had brought to the Egyptian nation.

But one day, a new king arose, who no longer cared for the beneficence of Yosef . . .

״וַיָּקׇם מֶלֶךְ חָדָשׁ עַל מִצְרָיִם״, רַב וּשְׁמוּאֵל, חַד אָמַר: חָדָשׁ מַמָּשׁ, וְחַד אָמַר: שֶׁנִּתְחַדְּשׁוּ גְּזֵירוֹתָיו. מַאן דְּאָמַר חָדָשׁ מַמָּשׁ — דִּכְתִיב ״חָדָשׁ״, וּמַאן דְּאָמַר שֶׁנִּתְחַדְּשׁוּ גְּזֵירוֹתָיו — מִדְּלָא כְּתִיב ״וַיָּמׇת וַיִּמְלוֹךְ״. וּלְמַאן דְּאָמַר שֶׁנִּתְחַדְּשׁוּ גְּזֵירוֹתָיו, הָא כְתִיב ״אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדַע אֶת יוֹסֵף״? מַאי ״אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדַע אֶת יוֹסֵף״ — דַּהֲוָה דָּמֵי כְּמַאן דְּלָא יָדַע לֵיהּ לְיוֹסֵף כְּלָל.

“There arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Yosef” (Exodus 1:8). Rav and Shmuel disagreed. One said: He was actually a new king, and one said: He was the old king, but his decrees were new. The one who said he was actually a new king explains that it is written in the verse that he was new. And the one who said that his decrees were new explains that it is not written: ‘And the king died, and his successor reigned.’ But according to the one who said that his decrees were new, isn’t it written: “Who knew not Yosef?” Nevertheless, what is the meaning of: “Who knew not Yosef?” That he acted as if he did not know Yosef at all.

You can imagine how the Egyptian attitudes towards the Hebrews changed over time.  How long were they going to maintain their air of entitlement?  Certainly, Yosef had saved everyone, but that was a generation ago! Did they still believe they could ride on his coattails?

And before long, a new Pharaoh was crowned.  It wasn’t like the new king didn’t remember Yosef.  Everyone did.  But he acted like he didn’t.  Because he, along with most of the Egyptian population, had tired of hearing constantly about how wonderful Yosef was and how the Egyptians were eternally in the Hebrews’ debt.

Some people spend the better part of a lifetime riding the coattails of their extraordinary pedigree.  They live in the best parts of town.  They get accepted into the best schools and universities.  And they waltz right into the most lucrative careers.

But there comes a time when every person needs to come into their own.  Your lineage will only get you so far.  You are an individual, placed onto this Earth to offer up your personal contribution, independent of grandpa Yosef.  You have not begun to fulfil your mission until you can point to a distinct accomplishment and declare that you have overcome your personal challenges and achieved beyond your Yosef power.

The same is true in reverse.  Many people spend their lives bemoaning the poor hand they’ve been dealt in life, or blaming their Yosef-figures for pain and suffering afflicted in their childhood.  Such individuals can reach their midlife and beyond, and still blame their parents for their poor performance.  If it’s a mitzvah to move beyond the good Yosefs, then it’s most certainly a mitzvah to get over the challenging Yosefs in your mind.

Our Sages teach, “We only refer to three patriarchs” – Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov.  Yosef was righteous, but there comes a time when we must all act as if we don’t know Yosef.  Unlike his forebears, his legacy cannot endure forever, whether for better or for worse.  You must become a master of your own destiny.

The key to remember, however, is that Yosef represents the spectrum of success.  Whilst our patriarchs and matriarchs had their fair share of challenges, none of their lives paralleled the spectacular fall and rise of Yosef.  In order to achieve Yosef’s greatness, one must ‘forget’ the Yosef embedded in our final consciousness: Yosef, Prince of Egypt.  The only way to become that prince is to overcome challenges just like Yosef did.

You are a child of the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.  You have the potential to become a Divine prince.  But just as Yosef didn’t become Prince Yosef overnight, you must be prepared to overcome obstacles and challenges on your rise to the top.  May you achieve the greatness your Father has destined you to be!

About the Author
Rabbi Daniel Friedman is the senior rabbi of the 1200-family Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, the United Synagogue's flagship congregation.
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