Shemot - weekly Torah portion

The Book of Exodus begins this way, “Now these are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob; they came each one with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah; Issachar, Zebulun and Benjamin; Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. All the persons who came from the loins of Jacob were seventy in number, but Joseph was already in Egypt.” We already know all of this as we read them carefully in the last chapters of the Book of Genesis, and this starts with a repetition of what is already known. It is mentioned that Joseph has died, and that “all his brothers and all that generation. But the sons of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly, and multiplied, and became exceedingly mighty, so that the land was filled with them.” It is of course clear that if they have come seventy persons strong that it would have to take at least several generations to grow that much in numbers. And now, after that long period, “new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”

With these very few words the Torah summarizes an enormous tension. It does not go into the entire story of Joseph in Egypt. It simply states that there is a side that knows the history and there is a side that ignores it, maybe because he is unaware of it, or may be a deliberate ignorance. Anyway, interests that have worked well in the past and have assisted Egypt tremendously are not there anymore for the new Pharaoh. So as to work the change with his people, he argues, ““Behold, the people of the sons of Israel are more and mightier than we. Come, let us deal wisely with them, or else they will multiply and in the event of war, they will also join themselves to those who hate us, and fight against us and depart from the land.” It is so easy, a process that we know so well from history, many times against Jews, but often also against other minorities be they Gypsies, Armenians, Native Americans or Afro-Americans. By uttering a few words it is possible to uncover the deepest of fears and cause a minority much suffering that they have to endure for long periods of time.

But it is not even necessary to dwell into this harassment of minorities leaving within us to try to understand this tension between remembrance and forgetfulness and the price to be paid for incorrectly handling a situation. The fact that the new Pharaoh forgot, or did not know, the contributions of Joseph to his nation, can happen to anybody. It is important though to understand that the lack of retention of that memory has its price, and it can be good or bad. Similarly that can be the case also for the very fact that we may forget something, it can be for the better and it can be for the worse. It very much depends on the manner by which we practice the case we remember or forget, that is, what are the things we forgot or chose to forget, and those that we remember, or choose to remember. It is valid to argue that the Pharaoh’s concern from a revolt by a substantial minority is reasonable. It is also reasonable that after several generations a good deed or accomplishment be forgotten. But we know how the case will unfold and the results for the current Pharaoh are devastating. His choices of what to remember and what to forget did not serve his nation very well.

Between “these are the names” and “a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” lies a chasm separating between the will or attempt to remember and the will or attempt to forget, knowingly or unknowingly. “Now these are the names” suggests that though many generations have come and gone still there is a particular memory of who entered Egypt and what was the number. At the opposite side “a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph”, may present new opportunities, suggests that things can be forgotten, but the “who did not know” also bares a price that shall become apparent as the story unfolds. At first the burden is on the off-springs of Israel, and later an ever increasing destruction of the land of Egypt, a land where everything that Joseph has toiled over, gets demolished step by step.

Leaders are bound to live within that chasm that lies between “these are the names” and “a new king arose over Egypt” and have to continuously choose to cling onto the memory or chose to forget. Each brings its threats and each brings its opportunities. The smart leader will navigate wisely to make good. On the one hand a degree of suspicion and understanding that one cannot rely only on experiences of the past or that they provide an unshaken promise for the future. On the other hand it is also important to rely on the past, identifying friend from foe, while remembering that even among friends there may be bitter disagreements, which still do not make the friend a foe. For us who are being led it is important that when selecting our leaders we go for those who make wise choices in this great chasm that lies between “these are the names” and “a new king arose over Egypt”.

Shabbat Shalom.

Reuven Marko, 20 January 2017, 23 Tevet, 5777

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