This is a big week. For our rabbinic students and other university students, school is back in session for the spring semester. Our week opened with the marking of Martin Luther King Day, calling our attention to injustice and our role in continuing to battle for justice for all people. And, as we move into Shabbat, as a country we will have seen (God willing) one of the greatest demonstrations of democracy, the peaceful transfer of power. And, as I think about where we are as a society, and the challenges we currently face in coming together - as people who agree and people who disagree – to work together for common cause, the cycle of Torah reading and its inherent message is a remarkable reminder and charge.
This week, we begin reading a new book, Exodus, looking forward to what we know turns out to be a timeless and endless relationship between God and the Jewish people. Yet, as we begin this new chapter in the life of our people, life looks very different than it did last week as we completed reading the book of Genesis. Joseph and his brothers have passed away, "and there arose a new king in Egypt asher lo yadah et Yosef -- who knew not Joseph." How strange it is to think that this unnamed leader fails to recall Joseph, who was second only to Pharoah in the Egyptian monarchy.
What a dramatic difference for the Israelites. You will recall that at the end of the Book of Genesis, even after his reconciliation with his family, the "generation of Joseph" continued to live and prosper in Egypt. So, how do things change so completely? How is it that the new king of Egypt does not Joseph?
The Talmud (Sotah 11) records a debate on this subject between two great scholars, Rav and Shmuel, known for their regular disagreements. Rav says the pharaoh of the opening verses of Exodus is literally a new pharaoh who would never have met Joseph and was unaware (on a firsthand basis) of Joseph's contribution to the king's court. Shmuel, on the other hand, says this was indeed the same Egyptian leader who had benefited from Joseph's sage wisdom and contributions, but whose new policies demonstrated a decision to ignore Joseph. Yet, Joseph's actions were widely understood to be chronicled in Egyptian history. Perhaps it is for that reason that Rashi says this new pharaoh was indeed of the same monarchy, but he made an active decision to pretend not to know Joseph.
Either way, the results are catastrophic. Pharoah unleashes an insidious process in which the Jewish people quickly become a nameless and faceless people who are enslaved, whose members are killed; and a new breed of hatred is developed.
As would be expected, the commentators offer different theories on why Pharoah turned so completely on the Hebrews, forcing them into hard labor. Some speculate that the move was an economic and strategic one, while others assume it is was out of fear and concern that were there to be a battle between the Egyptians and an enemy, the Hebrews, who had grown in such large numbers, would join their enemies.
One modern commentator, Dr. Nahum Sarna, suggests that the key to understanding Pharoah's action actually lies in one word, yada (to know). In his commentary to the Jewish Publication Society commentary, Sarna writes:
The usual rendering, "to know," hardly does justice to the richness of its semantic range. In the biblical conception, knowledge is not essentially or even primarily rooted in the intellect and mental activity. Rather, it is more experiential and is embedded in the emotions, so that it may encompass such qualities as contact, intimacy, concern, relatedness, and mutuality. Conversely, not to know is synonymous with dissociation, indifference, alienation, and estrangement; it culminates in callous disregard for another's humanity.
Nahum Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus, p .5
In other words, not having personally known Joseph or his people, this new Pharoah found it easy to disregard he/they whom he did not know. Step by step, Pharoah dissociated from the existence of the Hebrews, indifferent to their calls for recognition, disregarding their contributions – past or present. In the end, it became easy to dehumanize them for in his mind, they did not really exist individually or collectively.
In these opening days of the next chapter of our collective experience, we know that the lesson is as important today as it would have been to Pharoah in the days of our ancestors. There are those people we do not know and others we may choose not to know. And, there are those who we are convinced do now know us, do not understand our needs, whose inability to recognize others has led to a callous disregard of humanity. We may not be the active perpetrator, and we may be convinced of being right, but as was the case with Joseph so many years ago, the plight of those on the other side is well documented, and our neglect fuels oppression.
In this week of new beginnings, I pray that each one of us resolve to consider the ones whose story we do not know. I pray that we take time to "get to know them", bringing them into our circle of concern (especially if they disagree with us). After all, as our own story shows, this is the path that leads us collectively from oppression to redemption, from despair to hope, and from degradation to uprightness.