Shemos 5777

A Selective Memory[1]

ויקם מלך חדש על-מצרים אשר לא-ידע את-יוסף
A new King arose over Egypt that did not know Yosef[2]

In only a few short generations after Yaakov and his children had descended to Egypt, their descendants are in the millions[3]. We are told that after Yaakov’s twelve sons had all died, a new Pharaoh was appointed. He was not aware of all the good that Yosef did for the Egyptians. As a result, he had no problems taking advantage of this golden opportunity. There is an entire foreign nation within Egypt’s borders, available for the taking. Why not force them to work without pay? Pharaoh thought, they’ve been living here all this time for free, without justification; they owe it to us[4].

A basic question: How could this Pharaoh not know Yosef? There was a worldwide famine, and Egypt was the only country to have adequate food for its people. How did this happen? Yosef instituted a food collection system which ended up saving Egypt from the famine, boosting its economy in the process. This is where Egypt amassed its wealth, becoming the biggest empire at the time. Yosef was the second in command of this kingdom, everyone knew him. Several suggestions are offered. What is the Torah emphasizing by stating that there was a new king? Usually how kingdoms work is someone either inherits the throne or is promoted to be King. If this new Pharaoh was either of the two, he definitely would have known Yosef. The Torah is teaching us that he was not a member of the royal family[5]. He was also foreign to the government, never having had dealings with them[6]. Rather, he took the kingship by force. This is alluded to in the Torah with the verb ויקם, arose, rather than the more apt verb למלוך, to be coronated. He got up and conquered the kingship[7]. Not only was he foreign to the government, but perhaps he was even from a distant land[8]. Over time he gathered followers and overthrew the previous Pharaoh. This could explain his ignorance.

The gemarra offers a surprising answer to this question, by providing a different interpretation of the verse. When the Torah says that a new King arose, it’s not to be taken literally. It really means that he simply enacted new decrees[9]. What’s prompting this approach? The Torah uses a strange phrase to introduce this “new” King: ויקם, he arose. If it was really referring to an entirely new King, it should have used the phrased וימת וימלוך מלך חדש, that the [previous Pharaoh] died and a new King was coronated. This change in phraseology is a hint that something else is going on[10]. This idea of imposing new decrees also explains why the Torah says ויקם מלך חדש על-מצרים, literally on Egypt[11]. It should have said במצרים, in Egypt. Since it is referring to creating new decrees, it’s telling us that he imposed those decrees on the entire Egyptian nation, not just the Jews[12]. What prompted these new decrees? They’re a direct response to the population burst of the Jewish people[13]. Pharaoh felt threatened and needed to assert his control.

The verse now sounds like it’s referring to the same Pharaoh that Yosef dealt with[14]. If so, how could the Torah say that he didn’t know Yosef? This interpretation understands that it means he made himself not know Yosef[15]. He pretended like he didn’t exist. He denied all the good that Yosef did for him. Chazal say that someone who denies the good of their friend will eventually deny the good that Hashem does for them[16]. Pharaoh himself does this by later asking Moshe[17]: “Who is Hashem that I should obey Him?”[18]

We learn from this a tremendous lesson. The Kletzer Mashgiach used to point out that the Torah says Pharaoh didn’t know Yosef. If he was merely pretending, why does is it stated as a matter of fact? He answers Pharaoh wasn’t just pretending. If you can ignore something, you don’t really know it. He could ignore the fact that Yosef saved Egypt from the famine? That he built up the economy and all he asked for in return was a place for his family to live? A person who truly understood that is capable of returning the favor by persecuting his family? If he could ignore who Yosef is, then he never truly understood him; it never sunk in. We see this in our own lives. People know things are unhealthy for them, even dangerous, and they enjoy them anyways. It doesn’t register; they don’t internalize it. They don’t truly know what they think they know. As we say in the Aleinu prayer: וידעת היום, and you should know today, והשובת על לבבך, and let it rest on your heart.

Good Shabbos!

[1] Based on my own research and a shiur by Rav Yitzchok Berkowitz on the 6 Constant Mitzvos [6:25-9:10]

[2] Exodus 1:8

[3] 600,000 men between the ages of 20 and 80 are recorded to have left Egypt during the Exodus (Exodus 12:37). This figure excludes the women, children and the elderly who also left. Chazal tell us that that was only 1/5th of the Jews who were in Egypt during the enslavement (Mechilta to Exodus 13:18). There must then have been several million Jews during the enslavement

[4] Obviously this a false assertion, but could perhaps been the rationalization Pharaoh had

[5] Ibn Ezra ad. loc.; Maharal’s Chiddushei Aggados to Sotah 11a s.v. ויקם

[6] Be’er BaSadeh to Exodus 1:8

[7] Eitz Yosef and Yefei To’ar to Shemos Rabbah 1:8; Zohar II p. 7a

[8] Yalkut Me’am Loez ad. loc.

[9] This is a recurring disagreement between Rav and Shmuel: חד אמר חדש ממש וחד אמר שנתחדשו גזרותיו. Sotah 11a, brought by Rashi; Eiruvin 53a; Shemos Rabbah and Midrash Tanchuma Shemos § 5; Zohar loc. cit. (although there it’s a disagreement between Rabbi Chiya and Rabbi Yossi)

[10] The opinion that it’s literally a new King could respond as above, that it’s referring to the fact that he took it by force. Another approach is that we were told that the previous King died. Yalkut Reuveini, Pirkei D’Rabbi Elazar Chapter 10 and Sefer HaYashar all indicate that for the last 40 years of his life Yosef himself was Pharaoh of Egypt. The previous one had died, and Yosef as second in command took over. The previous verses just described the death of Yaakov’s children, including Yosef. After his death, this new King took over (Be’er BaSadeh and Torah Temimah ad. loc.)

[11] Iyun Yaakov to Sotah 11a

[12] When Pharaoh decreed to kill all the male babies, he decreed it even on his own people (Rashi to Exodus 1:22, quoting Sotah 12a and Shemos Rabbah 1:18). Torah Temimah loc. cit. takes the approach that the verse is really referring to the main players in Egypt, i.e. the Jews

[13] Sha’arei Aharon ad. loc.

[14] There are those that say this opinion also agrees we’re dealing with a new Pharaoh, just that he also enacted new decrees. The verse should have said מלך אחר, the word חדש teaches us about the new decrees (Torah Temimah loc. cit., cf. Torah Sheleimah Chapter 1 § 82). However, it’s not necessarily a foreigner, rather a descendant of the previous King. This could explain his audacity to deny the good Yosef did for Egypt (see next note) (Chiddushei Aggados loc. cit.)

[15] Eitz Yosef to Sotah 11a raises the issue mentioned above that how could Pharaoh not know Yosef? Even according to the opinion that there was literally a new King in Egypt, he should have at least heard of him. He rejects the idea that we’re dealing with a foreigner from a distant land. He says that it must be that this opinion agrees that Pharaoh made himself not know Yosef (Rashi to Exodus 1:8 s.v. אשר could be understood to mean this)

[16] Midrash HaGadol Shemos § 8

[17] Exodus 5:2

[18] Midrash Tanchuma loc. cit.