Ari Sacher

‘Who Knows?’: Parashat Shemot 5784

Israel’s glory days in Egypt fade quickly. Joseph and his generation die, and a new sheriff comes to town [Shemot 1:8]: “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” How could he possibly not have heard of Joseph? Imagine an American president not having heard of Abraham Lincoln or George Washington? Joseph had singlehandedly rescued Egypt from ruin and secured the empire as the world’s only superpower. He had interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams and as a result, successfully predicted seven years of feast followed by seven years of global famine. He had skillfully managed the Egyptian economy, storing grain when it was available and fairly distributing it when it was not. The Torah testifies [Bereishit 41:57]: “The entire world came to Egypt to Joseph to purchase [wheat], for the famine had intensified in the entire land.” Were it not for Joseph, the entire Middle East could have been wiped out. How could the new Pharaoh not have heard of Joseph?

Rashi[1] is troubled by Pharaoh’s short memory. He explains that of course the new king was familiar with Joseph but he “acted as if he did not know about him.” Times had changed and for whatever the reason, it was no longer politically expedient to associate with Joseph and the Hebrews[2]. The Da’at Ha’Zekenim m’Baalei HaTosafot[3] takes Rashi one step further. When Moshe and Aaron first approach Pharaoh with G-d’s request to “Let My people go,” Pharaoh makes a snide comment [Shemot 5:2]: “Who is this ‘G-d’ that I should heed His voice to let Israel out? I do not know any ‘G-d,’ neither will I let Israel out.” The Da’at Ha’Zekenim write, “Rabbi Yehudah ben Levi understands this line as a parable: There was someone who insulted an icon of the king. Having gotten away with that, the following week he insulted the king himself. Similarly, the new Egyptian king began by insulting the Jews, and when this became accepted, he proceeded to insult the G-d of the Jews.” In a textbook example of biblical “Cancel Culture,” Pharaoh disassociates himself from Joseph and everything he stands for by acting as if he never existed. No longer bound by the past, Pharaoh is free to act against what he perceives as a Jewish Fifth Column.

The Kli Yakar[4] takes a very different approach. When I first saw his explanation, I felt like I had been punched in the gut. Like Rashi, the Kli Yakar believes that Joseph was too famous to forget. Rather, when Scripture states that Pharaoh did not know Joseph, it means that he did not know about Joseph’s past. He did not know that Joseph’s brothers had tried their best to do away with him and to bury his dreams of grandeur. He did not know that G-d had foiled their plot because He had other plans, plans in which Joseph played a starring role. If only Pharaoh had known this, perhaps he would have acted differently. But, alas, he did not know. And so his plans for genocide backfire [Shemot 1:12]: “But the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and the more they expanded.” Just like Joseph’s brothers could not succeed in vanquishing Joseph, Pharaoh was equally unable to vanquish Joseph’s descendants. G-d had other plans and He was still not finished implementing them.

Rabbi Nachum Menachem from Chernobyl[5], writing in “Maor Eynaim,” explains that the key message of the Egyptian exile is the knowledge of G-d’s absolute control. Pharaoh did not know but G-d did. In the four chapters that lie between Pharaoh’s admission of knowing neither Joseph nor G-d, the Torah tells us no less than four times that G-d “knew”:

  1. Shemot [2:25] “G-d looked upon the Israelites, and G-d took notice (va’yeda) of them.”
  2. Shemot [3:7] “I am mindful (yadati) of their sufferings.”
  3. Shemot [3:19] “I know (yadati) that the king of Egypt will let you go…”
  4. Shemot [4:14] “Your brother Aaron the Levite. He, I know (yadati), speaks readily.”

Pharaoh did not know but G-d did. From the moment that Joseph left home that fateful day to check on his brothers, everything that transpired pushed the ball one yard closer to the end zone: Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery in Egypt, where he is acquired by Potiphar, an Egyptian nobleman. Potiphar’s wife falsely accuses him of rape, and he is sentenced to prison, where he meets the royal butler and baker, whose dreams he accurately interprets. When Pharaoh dreams vivid nightmares that his interpreters cannot interpret, the butler remembers Joseph’s prowess and he is pulled from jail, where he has been rotting for the past two years. Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams, he is appointed the grand vizier, and he prepares Egypt for the famine of which Pharaoh has dreamed. The rest of the world remains oblivious and, when the famine hits, turns to Egypt for food, eventually handing over to the Egyptians all of their liquid assets in exchange for grain. Meanwhile, the Jews prosper in Egypt and Pharaoh, in a concerted effort to exterminate them, makes them prosper even more. A baby destined to be their savior is miraculously pulled from the Nile by Pharaoh’s daughter and grows up in the palace, giving him unfettered access that he will one day use this to his advantage to periodically “drop in” on Pharaoh unannounced. Pharaoh stands tall during the ten plagues, enabling the Jewish people to experience the full extent of G-d’s power. When the Jews leave Egypt, they do so with their heads help high. The Egyptian people shower them with gold and silver, the same gold and silver that was brought to Egypt to pay for the grain that Joseph sold. And that gold and silver was used to build the Tabernacle (Mishkan) that served as a corporeal home for the Divine Presence. Pharaoh did not know but G-d did.

Since the events of October 7, it has become crystal clear that tectonic changes are occurring, that we are on final approach to our redemption. Israelis, learning from Pharaoh’s lesson, want to know two things: [1] What is the end game? [2] What should I be doing to push the ball forward? Here is a preface to a suggestion: One of my favorite parts of the Passover Seder is the singing of Dayeinu, which enumerates a litany of miracles that G-d performed at the exodus. After each miracle, we say “Dayeinu”, meaning that had G-d performed only that miracle, it would have been more than we deserved. Dayeinu is followed by a summary of the miracles, which concludes, “You brought us into the Land of Israel and built us the Holy Temple to atone for our sins.” This preface segues nearly seamlessly into an article recently published by Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman called, “Is This War a Divine Punishment?[6]” He poses a question that he suggests that Israelis should be really asking themselves: Is there something that we did that served to create this horrific reality? He gives three ways in how admitting our sins in times of collective trauma can realign our relationship with G-d. His third reason sums up our essay: “This is also the thinking behind the structure of the cornerstone of all our prayer, the daily Amidah. In its central section we recite thirteen passages or ‘blessings’ of request. Salvation from our suffering and asking the Al-mighty to wage our battles is only the fourth of these blessings. First, we ask for wisdom to make clear-headed choices. Then, with wisdom in hand, we ask to be led back to the ways of the Torah. Third, we ask the Al-mighty to forgive us our sins. And only once we’ve taken stock of our own shortcomings do we turn to him, ‘Look upon our affliction. Defend our cause and redeem us speedily… Blessed are You, L-rd, the Redeemer of Israel.’” First, we must attain knowledge. Next, we must take responsibility. Then, and only then, can we attain salvation.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5784

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Sheindel Devorah bat Rina, Rina bat Hassida, and Esther Sharon bat Chana Raizel.

[1] Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known by his acronym “Rashi,” was the most eminent of the medieval commentators. He lived in northern France in the 11th century.

[2] A well-known historical explanation concerns the Hyksos invasion of Egypt. According to this explanation, Joseph came to power under a Hyksos ruler. After the Egyptians successfully defeated and expelled the Hyksos, all vestiges of their rule, including the story of Joseph, were erased.

[3] The Da’at haZekenim is a collection of comments made the “Tosafists,” who lived in Germany and France in the 12th and 13th centuries.

[4] Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz, who was the Chief Rabbi of Prague in the beginning of the 17th century, wrote a commentary on the Torah called “Kli Yakar.

[5] Rabbi Nachum Menachem lived in the 18th century. He founded the Chernobyl Hasidic dynasty.


About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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