"A new king arose over Egypt, who knew not Yosef."
The opening of the book of Exodus introduces us for the first time to what has in modernity been dubbed, "the Jewish problem:" "[The Egyptian Pharaoh] said to his people, 'Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more numerous and stronger than we are. Get ready, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they increase, and a war befall us, and they join our enemies and depart from the land.'" (Exodus 1:9-10) Too numerous, too wealthy, too poor, too clever, too strong, too weak, too crude, too assimilated, too separate, the list goes on and on. Wherever Jews dwell, their presence, with few historical exceptions, is perceived by others as a threat. Pharaoh, in this week's Torah reading, earns the honor of being the first potentate to propose the breathtakingly obvious response: Eliminate the Jews.
In attempting to eradicate the presence of Israel from within Egyptian society, Pharaoh actually embarked upon a three pronged approach, each of which have been repeatedly tried throughout Israel's long history, with increasing venom and aggression in modern times. Approach number one was servitude: make their lives miserable with the aim at breaking their spirits. Their spirits and bodies broken, they will lose their communal cohesiveness, break apart and disintegrate into nothingness. "So the Egyptians enslaved the children of Israel with back breaking labor. And they embittered their lives with hard labor, with clay and with bricks and with all kinds of labor in the fields, all their work that they worked with them with back breaking labor." (ibid 1:13-14)
Approach number two was genocide, or more specifically, infanticide: Destroy the males at birth. The surviving females with serve the Egyptians and eventually disappear into Egyptian society, leaving no trace. "'When you deliver the Hebrew women, and you see on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall put him to death, but if it is a daughter, she may live.'" (ibid 1:16)
When the G-d-fearing Hebrew midwives, Shifra and Puah, refused to do Pharaoh's bidding, this approach was modified. "Every son who is born you shall cast into the Nile, and every daughter you shall allow to live." (ibid 1:22)
Now the third approach was really the first approach, as enslavement and genocide were but logical corollaries of the first approach, which was erasing Israel from the collective memory of the nation. "A new king arose over Egypt, who knew not Yosef." (ibid 1:8) In ancient totalitarian Egypt, Pharaoh's state of mind was what informed every nook and cranny of Egyptian civilization. What Pharaoh knew, or didn't know, was the law.
Although the exact nature of Pharaoh's forgetfulness concerning Yosef and his people remains an unanswered question, (was this a new Pharaoh, or even a foreign invader who assumed the title Pharaoh, and to whom the legacy of Yosef held no meaning or allegiance, or was it the same Pharaoh of Yosef's day who experienced a change of heart), it ultimately translated into the same thing: the willful obliteration of Yosef from the national consciousness.
Every Pharaoh employed scribes skilled at chronicling their reign's history through hieroglyphics. Palace walls and all public buildings were adorned with the hieroglyphic retelling of Pharaonic history. Certainly Yosef, so central and revered a figure in his own lifetime, was mentioned, even glorified, on these walls. But now the word went out from Pharaoh and Yosef's name was whitewashed, erased, deleted, expurgated and expunged from every wall, ledger and record book within Egypt. Yosef no longer existed. And as he disappeared so did the identity of his people. Enslaved and set upon, now the children of Israel were robbed completely of their identity. How easy to actively be an accessory to the physical eradication of a people when they no longer exist in the mind! How difficult to survive such a wholesale attack on your very existence when those attacking you claim that you never existed in the first place!vIn the past eighty years alone we have witnessed unrelenting attempts using all three of these ancient approaches to removing Israel, utterly and completely, from the world. Nazi Germany relied on slavery and genocide to accomplish their aim. The Arab states, after the birth of Israel in 1948, modified the Nazi attempt at worldwide genocide to the elimination of the Jews within the land of Israel. And like Pharaoh, they abandoned the methodical elimination of the Jews via a state run apparatus, (in Germany's case, the death camps, in Pharaoh's case, the use of the midwifes), and opted instead for "throwing the Jews into the sea!" as the well known battle-cry of the Arab states declared for many decades.
The current approach, even more dangerous than the others, for it is so easy to buy into, so easy to adopt, so easy to justify and sanitize, and so appealing to the politically correct thought tyranny that is threatening our world, is none other that the "know not Yosef" approach. "These people never existed before, never did a jot of good for humanity, never pulled their own weight, in the end always siding with the enemy, so why should they exist today? Why should they exist tomorrow?" Pull out the plug on Israel's "being" and they will cease to exist!
Alas, for our as-ever implacable enemies, the catch to this approach today remains the very same catch that made itself manifest in Pharaoh's day: "G-d heard their cry, and G-d remembered His covenant with Avraham, with Yitzchak, and with Ya'akov. And G-d saw the children of Israel, and G-d knew." (ibid 2:25) How foolish our G-dless persecutors are! How puny are their grandiose plans to destroy Israel and expropriate for themselves that which belongs to G-d! How fortunate is Israel, for even when all the Pharaohs of the world declare from every capital and every human rights forum and every international court of justice that they "know not Yosef," G-d knows Yosef and G-d hears the cry of Israel! This is all that matters. G-d knows!
Tune in to this week's TEMPLE TALK as Rabbi Chaim Richman and Yitzchak Reuven discuss the book of Exodus, the "king who knew not Yosef," the spiritual anarchists among us today who are his descendants, and who is ultimately responsible for the rise of hostility to Israel in recent years.