Shemot: Distance and Denial

How can it be that they did not remember Joseph?

Rabbanit Shira Smiles

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Summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein

Memory plays such an integral part in the human experience. Yet, people forget. Why? Sometimes, it is the result of trauma or of aging, at other times it may be emotional and psychological, and still at other times it is willful with a desire to rewrite one’s history. As we begin Sefer Shemot and the chronicle of our enslavement in Egypt and our redemption, we start with a review of the Children of Israel who were coming to Egypt, the death of that entire generation, and then, “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, ‘Behold the people, the children of Israel are more numerous (rav) and stronger than we. Come … lest they may join our enemies and wage war against us …’ “

 How is it possible that the king, new or old, did not know Yosef (Joseph)? Given Yosef’s role in the salvation of Egypt, wouldn’t his name and his legacy be well known and appear in every hieroglyphic record? Yet, that memory was expunged. Since this lapse in memory could not be attributed to a physical source, the questions remain both why these memories were erased and how that obliteration became successful.

The Ner Uziel, Rabbi Uziel Milevsky, provides tremendous insight into the psyche of the nations among which we find ourselves in every generation. After all, Egypt was the first and the prototype of all our exiles. When our ancestors first descended to Egypt, they were a tightly knit group retaining their identities as the children of Jacob, maintaining their tight familial ties and moral standards, and living as a separate minority group in the ghetto of Goshen. But that whole generation died, and with it its cohesiveness. Little by little, Bnei Yisroel moved out of Goshen and integrated into Egyptian society on all levels so that eventually it seemed to the observer that the Jews were everywhere and taking over Egyptian society. In the eyes of the Egyptians, the assimilating Israelites appeared to be swarming like vermin, ready to overtake Egypt. In reaction to this perceived threat, the Egyptians with their king hatched the plan to subjugate the Israelites.

 But Jews can never fully assimilate among the nations, notes Rav Schwadron in Lev Shalom, for even the gentile prophet Balaam understood that “they are a nation who dwells alone.” In spite of a desire to assimilate, Bnei Yisroel kept their unique identity through retaining their Hebrew names, language and dress code. Then why did Hashem give us the mitzvah of the Pascal sacrifice so that we would merit redemption, asks Rabbi Schwadron? He answers that these symbolic retentions of Jewish identity were subconscious, part of their DNA, the “pintele yid” that can never be erased from the Jew in spite of their desire to assimilate completely. What Bnei Yisroel needed was something they undertook to do freely as Jews.

 Genendel Krohn in Sparks of Majesty relates the story of soccer great Victor Kanevsky who was forced to retire and was stripped of his medals for refusing to give up his middle name, Israel, at the urging of the atheistic Soviet regime. Victor was totally assimilated, but he refused to give up the one thing that still tied him to his Jewish roots and to his great Jewish relative, the Steipler Gaon.

What Rabbi Druck points out in Dorash Mordechai is that as long as Bnei Yisroel kept themselves separate in Goshen, there was no problem with the Egyptians. Only when they wanted to assimilate into mainstream Egyptian society at the expense of their own identity were they resented and seen as a threat. The anti-Semitism toward the Jews was, in fact, a means of Hashem’s way of reminding us of our unique identity as His people. (From the Haggadah: Why do people arise in every generation trying to destroy us? This is part of Hashem’s promise to our forefathers that we would never be destroyed. We must wear our identity as Jews with pride or Hashem will see to it that we retain our identity in other ways. For example, the yellow star the Nazis y”s decreed we wear.)

 Rav Druck continues to develop this idea even further.  We are different from other nations, and just as oil and water don’t mix, we cannot be mixed with other nations. Therefore, even while we live among the nations and are employed in their workplaces, for example, we must retain our Jewish identity, leaving early on “short” Fridays and remaining apart when loshon horo is spoken around the water fountain. While we can be appliquéd upon the fabric of secular society, we must never be woven into its very fabric. No matter how integrated and successful we may become, we must always still feel that we are in a strange land, as did our forefathers in spite of their wealth and success.

Rabbi Schlesinger in Eileh Hadevorim offers an additional interpretation to Pharaoh’s actions. He notes that the original agreement between Yosef and Pharaoh was that Bnei Yisroel reside in Goshen as shepherds. When Bnei Yisroel broke this agreement and entered into all aspects of Egyptian society and political life, living throughout the land, the Egyptians felt that Bnei Yisroel had abrogated the initial agreement, and the Egyptians saw the Jews as swarming throughout the land. Egypt feared being overrun by the Jews, and now they could also break their part of the agreement of living in peace with Bnei Yisroel.

 Rabbi Milevsky notes a psychological factor in Pharaoh’s actions. What motivated Pharaoh, writes Rabbi Milevsky, was a desire to rewrite history. (Has anything changed?) Whenever Pharaoh would remember Yosef or read about him or see his image, he was reminded of the nadir in Egyptian history, of a time when they needed a foreigner to save them from death and destruction. The only way Pharaoh could escape that depression was by expunging all memory of Yosef from Egyptian history.

 Rav Yosef Salant in Be’er Yosef provides a variation to this theme. While Pharaoh wanted to eliminate the debt his nation owed Yosef, his people may not have been in agreement with him originally. Pharaoh overcame their objections by reinterpreting Yosef’s motives. Pharaoh put his own spin on Yosef’s decrees, explaining that everything Yosef did was for the benefit of his own family and the detriment of the Egyptians. Before his family came to Egypt, Yosef enslaved the Egyptian population. (That was the price they themselves had suggested in payment for food during the famine.) But since his family had not yet arrived in Egypt, they were exempt from this decree. Bnei Yisroel were free and owned land while the native Egyptians were slaves and landless! Bnei Yisroel were the rav, the leaders. All Pharaoh was suggesting was that now the laws be rightfully reversed. This was Pharaoh’s first political maneuver in carrying out his anti-Semitic plans. But, as Imrei Esh points out in Wellsprings of Torah, Pharaoh didn’t know the secret of Yosef’s rise to power (and of Jewish survival). The more Yosef was oppressed, the more he rose to power.

We are being invariably led to a gaping hole in Pharaoh’s character, his inability to feel gratitude. Even more to the point, his unwillingness to feel gratitude. As Rav Benzion Zaks says in Menachem Zion, it is this flaw that led to the downfall of Pharaoh and the Egyptians. When you cannot acknowledge the good that a human being has done for you, you will not be able to acknowledge the good that God does for you. This denial of Yosef and his legacy was the precursor to Pharaoh’s exclaiming, “Who is Hashem that I should listen to His voice.” From here it was only a short distance to active cruelty.

On a positive note, though, just as one can descend so quickly into the abyss, writes Rabbi Chasman in Ohr Yahel, so too can one quickly rise to higher levels. What it takes in both cases is rising up against one’s initial feelings, vayokom melech chodosh, whether good or bad, and suppressing them.

But that initial impulse to change is not enough, writes Rabbi Schrage Grosbard in Daas Schrage. One must maintain the effort if one is to grow in either direction. Pharaoh wanted to erase the debt of gratitude he owed Yosef. To do so, he had to distance himself so completely from Yosef that he went totally to the other direction, toward cruelty to Yosef and his family. It was specifically that cruelty, writes Rabbi Zeichik in Ohr Chodosh that helped him eradicate the knowledge of Yosef’s benevolence.

Rabbi Mordechai Druck presents us with an interesting irony here based on psychological ideas. Human beings subconsciously practice transference. That means that what we ourselves feel or experience, especially if we suppress those feelings, we attribute to others. Here Pharaoh suppressed his feelings of gratitude toward Yosef. He transferred those feelings onto Bnei Yisroel, fearing that they would deny having benefitted from the hospitality of the Egyptians. It was this transference of his own ingratitude that led him to fear that Bnei Yisroel would ally with the enemy against Egypt. How ironic, since we are commanded to be grateful to the Egyptians in whose land we resided, albeit as strangers.

Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian reverses the lesson from Pharaoh.. He says that in order to raise your awareness and gratitude toward Hashem, express gratitude regularly to people who have done anything for you.

We, as Yehudim, practice gratitude and acknowledge the good others do for us, because our benefactor is ultimately a messenger of God. Other nations call us by our name which means gratitude, Jew, Jude, all variations of the Hebrew. We cannot and will not deny our name, and in eighty generations since Sinai we remain a distinct nation always trying to close the distance between ourselves and our God.