A Joint Project of Ohr Chadash and InwardNews.com
“And there arose a new king in Egypt who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8).
The Torah recounts that after the deaths of Jacob and his sons, a new king came to power “who did not know Joseph.” This characterization is somewhat surprising, for how could anyone who knew Egypt’s recent history not be aware of Joseph? Rashi explains that the king pretended not to know Joseph. He does not clarify whether this “new king” was newly ascended to the throne or was just instituting new policies (the two options offered by Rav and Shmuel, respectively, in Sotah 11a). Either way, this king had conveniently forgotten all that Joseph had done in saving Egypt from the devastating famine and in restructuring the Egyptian economy in a manner that concentrated vast wealth and power in the monarch’s hands.
The Torah is eternal and its narratives are archetypal in nature. Thus, it is no surprise that an amazing pattern is alluded to in this verse and in the Rabbis comments on it. Countless times throughout Jewish history, Jews have emigrated to various kingdoms, provinces, empires, and nation states at their leaders’ requests. The rulers or governments recognized the many talents the Jews would bring with them and invited them to come and assume prominent positions in society, as Pharaoh did with Joseph. Invariably, like Joseph who rose to the pinnacle of his society in power and influence, these Jews managed to rise to the upper echelons of power in government and finance, as well as in the arts, sciences, and liberal professions.
Until, that is, a “new” king would arise “who did not know Joseph,” who conveniently forgot how much the Jews had done for him. Eventually, the very contribution the Jews made to their host countries resulted in their own success and lead to jealousy, mistrust, and accusations of dual loyalty and treason. Jews were (and still are) scapegoated by all sides: the rich and the poor, the conservative and the liberal, the communist and the capitalist.
Just as Joseph and his family’s financial and political success were followed by slavery, so too throughout Jewish history, initial “golden periods” have merely been the precursors to crusades, inquisitions, mass expulsions, ghettos, pogroms, and the Holocaust. Yet, just as the Jews in Egypt survived their oppression, Jews throughout history have weathered every storm until this very day. This archetypal pattern of the Jews going up and down the ladder of success is alluded to not only by Jacob’s dream of the ladder but also by the story of the birth of the Jewish people, as recounted in the book of Shemot.
This dynamic can be seen clearly once again in recent actions taken by Europe, which until recently was a staunch defender of Israel, due in great measure from a collective sense of guilt for Europe’s actions (and lack of actions) during the Holocaust. But it seems a “new” king has risen in Europe that does not know Joseph and has forgotten not only very recent history but also the incredibly important role Jews have played these last few hundred years in developing countries around Europe financially, culturally, politically and scientifically.
In just a few months one country after another in Europe has recognized a Palestine state without the prior to understanding that a Palestinian state would only (if even ever) come into being through direct negotiations with Israel. Additionally, Hamas was removed from the list of terrorist organizations, and at the UN Security Council a number of European countries backed the Palestinian demand for UN action to impose a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict without direct negotiations with Israel. All these actions are stark reminders of the eternal nature of the Torah and how the dynamics and principles revealed in her stories are ever current and relevant.
A second archetypal aspect present in the Joseph story is the role of the Jew as “second to the king.” Throughout history Jews have risen to become either second-in-command or to occupy very powerful positions in their host countries. Among the most famous examples are Mordecai and Esther in ancient Persia, Daniel in ancient Babylonia, Abarbanel in Spain, Disraeli in England, Trotsky in Russia, and Kissinger in the United States of America. The same pattern has repeated itself throughout history in similar ways in other countries and smaller localities around the globe.
Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh explains that the letters of the Hebrew word for “second to [the king]” (mishneh) when permuted spell the Hebrew word for soul (neshamah). The Jewish soul is “second to the king,” to God, the King of Kings, and this pattern is manifest in the Jews’ relationship with earthly kings and governments as well (Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, The Hebrew Letters, p. 48). God’s blessing that all the nations of the world would be blessed through Abraham is partially realized when Jews attain high positions whether in government, literature, law, medicine, economics, art, or science. One day when the true history and development of humankind is revealed the world will learn not to forget the immense contribution the Jewish people have made to humanity.
A Joint Project of Ohr Chadash and InwardNews.com.