You Don’t Know … Joe

Photo by author 1-8-2021

“And there arose a new king who did not know Joseph…”

From the time of the Talmud, there has been a debate about this line.  Some say it means that there was, in fact, a new Pharaoh.  Joseph lived 110 years; he was only 39 when Jacob came to join the rest of the family in Egypt, and there is no record in Torah that Joseph ever left his post as vizier.  Even assuming a “boy king” like Tutankhamun, a Pharaoh of Joseph’s younger days (remember that he arrived in Egypt at age 17) would have been no younger than 75 and perhaps pushing a hundred by Joseph’s death, but likely we are speaking of a successor, or even a successor to the successor.

A second opinion suggests that it was the same king, at least the same as one of several who knew Joseph personally, but that after Joseph’s death he made himself as though he did not know Joseph.  The Torah uses the word yada, which when used about a person always implies intimate knowledge, not simply knowing about them.  Even ancient Egyptian politics was a “what have you done for me lately?” type of society, even if it could not hold a candle to the current White House, and once Joseph died his contributions to the kingdom could easily be forgotten.

Certainly, if we follow the first opinion, a new king might have known about Joseph, been able to recount what he did, but not appreciated the magnitude of what Egypt avoided thanks to him.  That Pharaoh might have been too caught up in how he could galvanize the population against a common enemy, and thought, “Hey, Joseph was responsible for consolidating all the land under national control.  Let’s blame his people for something!”  Two hundred years before we could even invent the scapegoat, we were already being scapegoated.  Ah, the life of the Jews…

I imagine that in Joseph’s time, you could stroll down a street in Egypt during the famine years and see crudely chiseled stones and hastily written papyri on people’s front stoops that said, “Thank you to Joseph, our administrative hero!”  People stood on their balconies as his chariot passed and played reed flute music or banged on pots and pans to salute him.  After all, they weren’t starving thanks to him.  Right?

I’m saying this because my colleagues in the acute care medical world, in long-term care facilities, or in outpatient offices like mine, have been hearing for 10 months about what heroes we are.  People in other fields like law-enforcement and public safety, agriculture, food service and Amazon delivery have suddenly become “essential workers,” suddenly recognized as important for doing the tasks they have always done that keep our society from grinding to a halt.  Our “kings,” meaning our elected officials, media outlets, and corporate leaders, have lauded these folks for their invaluable contributions during the pandemic, the papyri have given way to video displays and posterboard with markers, and the reed flutes to Italian opera and “Ehad Mi Yodea.”  But heroes they still are.

Which gets me to thinking, as we close in on one year in the world of COVID19, when we, too, will reach the point of a “new king who did not know Joseph?”  Sadly, I fear we already have – or worse, that even in the very beginning, when the outpouring of support was greatest, that the “king,” and his people, never really knew these Josephs to begin with.

When front-facing healthcare workers and students are unable to get vaccines – but still have to see patients, when whistle-blowers who cry out about still inadequate supplies of personal protective equipment, when doctors are accused of padding the numbers of dead and hospitalized from COVID 19 because it somehow, perversely, must be benefitting us, it is clear that whoever thinks they are kind never knew Joseph, and would not have bothered to pluck him out of prison given their choice.  They are indifferent to his advice, averse to his knowledge, resentful of his caring.

I am certain that Joseph, in his day, took plenty of flak because some muckety-muck in the lower Delta region didn’t like the way he built the granaries, or thought his signet ring too ostentatious, or felt he was turning Egypt into a pale imitation of that degraded kingdom up in Mesopotamia.  He was spared from having to appear on cable or having a social media account, so it wasn’t as bad, but let’s assume he took his lumps.  But in the end, he was known, and appreciated, for his contribution, by most of the people in Egypt – and even, eventually, by his own family.

The lack of recognition, the rapid forgetting, and the disregard for the well-being of our healthcare workers isn’t just disappointing, or insulting – it’s potentially catastrophic.  Lost in the noise of the coup attempt in Washington on Wednesday and the Senate elections in Georgia on Tuesday is a much bigger story.  The pandemic in Los Angeles has reached that point that we dreaded.  Every effort that was made in March and thereafter to contain COVID 19 was done with one thing in mind – not to get to this point, the point of ambulances and hospitals rationing scarce medical resources like bottled oxygen to those felt to be most likely to survive.  “So we don’t overwhelm the healthcare system” – remember those words?  This is what an overwhelmed healthcare system looks like.

One of the reasons that it looks like this is because of the personnel being stretched beyond their limits.  Because of inadequate PPE, because of unavoidable crowding, because of having to be in the faces of people horribly sick with COVID19, there has been a rolling tide of healthcare workers in quarantine for exposure, sick with COVID 19 – or dying.  I’d tell you to say their names, but that belongs to a different movement, and in any case there’s too damn many of them, thousands of healers who are no longer due solely to this virus since the pandemic began, including someone whose “king” clearly never knew him, nor cared about him, the brave Chinese doctor who first sounded the alarm over a year ago.

Another reason it looks like this, sadly, is that the same people who put the signs on their lawns and banged the pots and pans still had 20 person Thanksgiving dinners, ate in restaurants, went to church or shul unmasked, and lobbied their elective officials to open the country back up – which really ended up meaning “open the hospitals back up to the wave of COVID patients.”

As a result of these twin stressors, people are quitting the field altogether, at the exact time that we need all hands on deck.  The center where I work has been steadily hiring all through the pandemic, partially because doing the same work requires so much more effort than ever before, and partially to staff a whole new enterprise of mobile testing and contact tracing that has pulled our regulars our of their roles.  Yet many places cannot fill these new roles.  Especially hurting is public health, where the dangers of COVID19 may be less than the hazard posed by angry mobs sending death threats.  Many places have seen officials resign and fear they might not be able to replace them, now or in the future.  They have lost their Josephs at the exact moment they needed them most – and the kings are all to satisfied to have run them out of town.

Toward the end of the parsha, Moshe is on the road from Midian back to Egypt and stops at an inn.  A very confusing passage states that he met God there vayivakesh lehargehu, “And he tried to kill him.”  Why on Earth would God try to kill Moshe just as he is headed to do a task that God sent him to do?  My friend Brian Primack, a family doc and dean of a college at University of Arkansas that includes their school of public health, taught me this interpretation from Richard Elliot Friedman:  God isn’t trying to kill Moshe.  Moshe is asking God to kill him rather than have to face the gargantuan task before him.  It is too much.

Our healers already suffer from depression, PTSD, and suicidality at alarming rates.  They burn out so fast that an emergency physician only has about twice the career lifespan of an NFL lineman.  And now, they are playing Josephs in a time ruled by the new Pharaoh who does not know him.  God help the rest of us if that doesn’t change soon.

About the Author
Jonathan Weinkle MD, FAAP, FACP is a primary care-physician in a community health center in Pittsburgh. He is not a rabbi, though he has often been accused of being one. He is an amateur singer-songwriter, teaches at both Chatham University and the University of Pittsburgh, and is the author of the book Healing People, Not Patients.
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