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The Book of Genesis – concludes with a description of the halcyon days of peace and love in Egypt.

Jacob, the last of the Patriarchs, blessed all his sons, then died peacefully in his bed aged 147; he was so respected among the Egyptians that the Egyptian physicians honoured him by embalming him, and all Egypt mourned him for 70 days (!); his descendants brought him – with Pharaoh’s royal escort – to Hebron for burial; Joseph and his brothers are fully reconciled with each other; they are living lives of peace and affluence in Egypt; Joseph has died, also a peaceful death, aged 110, and like his father, received the Egyptian honour of being embalmed.

With such wonderful lives, what could possibly go wrong?

And then the Book of Exodus – begins by describing how wonderful the Jews’ lives were in Egypt: “Joseph died, so did all his brothers and the entire generation, and the Children of Israel were fruitful and they swarmed and they multiplied and they became mighty – very, very much so” (Exodus 1:6-7).

Indeed, what could possibly go wrong?

Yet the very next verse introduces Egypt’s regression and descent into oppression:

“A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph; and he said to his nation: Behold! – the nation of the Children of Israel are greater and mightier than us” (vs. 8-9), and this new king used this as his basis for inciting his nation against these foreign Jews who were taking over their country.

The Talmud (Eiruvin 53a, Sotah 11a) and the Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 1:8) record two different interpretations of the phrase “A new king arose over Egypt”:

Rav understands it literally: a new king.

Shmuel, however, understands it to mean that the same king enacted new decrees. He argues that had there been literally a new king, then the Torah would have introduced the new king by saying that “the king died”, as it does in Exodus 2:23. Therefore, he posits, the old king did not die.

So according to Shmuel, how could the Torah say that this new king was someone “who did not know Joseph”?

– “He became as one who did not know Joseph at all”.

In other words, he pretended not to know Joseph. He knew perfectly well all the benefits that Joseph had brought Egypt – but he deliberately ignored those and began persecuting Joseph’s people.

I offer a radically different and new explanation:

וַיָּקָם מֶלֶךְ חָדָשׁ עַל מִצְרָיִם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדַע אֶת יוֹסֵף:

“A new king arose over an Egypt which did not know Joseph”. That is to say, Egypt as a nation no longer remembered Joseph and the benefits he had brought them. Hence אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדַע אֶת יוֹסֵף, “who did not know Joseph”, refers not to Pharaoh, but to Egypt.

Both ways of reading the verse are correct literally.

I find support for this interpretation in the Midrash:

“Why did they call him ‘a new king’? Wasn’t he still the self-same Pharaoh?! – The Egyptians said to Pharaoh: Come, let’s attack this nation. He replied: You fools! Until now we have eaten what they supplied, so how can we attack them?! Had it not been for Joseph, none of us would be alive! But because he did not listen to them, they deposed him from his throne for three months, until he said to them: Whatever you want to do I’ll agree to! Thereupon they restored him” (Shemot Rabbah 1:8).

So according to this understanding, the initiative to persecute the Jews in Egypt came from below: it began with the ordinary people – “Egypt which did not know Joseph” – and the king acceded to popular sentiment in order to keep his throne.

Just how long did the persecution last?

– G-d had long since decreed to Abraham our father, even before he was Abraham, when he was still Abram:

יָדֹ֨עַ תֵּדַ֜ע כִּי־גֵ֣ר ׀ יִֽהְיֶ֣ה זַרְעֲךָ֗ בְּאֶ֨רֶץ֙ לֹ֣א לָהֶ֔ם וַֽעֲבָד֖וּם וְעִנּ֣וּ אֹתָ֑ם אַרְבַּ֥ע מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָֽה׃

“Know with certainty that your seed will be foreigners in a land which is not theirs – and they will enslave and persecute them – for four hundred years” (Genesis 15:13).

The cantillation-signs support this punctuation: the זָקֵף-קָטֹ֔ן above the word לָהֶ֔ם and the אֶתְנַחְתָּ֑א under the word אֹתָ֑ם set off the words וַֽעֲבָד֖וּם וְעִנּ֣וּ אֹתָ֑ם, “and they will enslave and persecute them” as a subordinate clause. Hence G-d’s decree was that “your seed will be foreigners in a land which is not theirs for four hundred years”, and that included in this 400-year period, though not for all of it, “they will enslave and persecute them”.

Retrospectively it became clear that the 400-year countdown began with Abraham’s very first descendant, Isaac: from the day he was born until the day of the Exodus was precisely 400 years. Isaac was born in the Land of Israel while it was still Canaan, still belonging to the seven Canaanite nations, so he was already a “foreigner in a land which was not his”.

The actual exile began the day that Jacob and his ten sons went down to Egypt (Genesis 46:1-7), which was 190 years after Isaac has born; so for the first 190 years of this decree, Abraham’s descendants were not yet in exile at all.

210 years remained for them to be in Egypt; but as long as the first generation of Joseph and his brothers – even a single one of them – remained alive, they were not persecuted.

According to Midrash Rabbeinu Bechayyé and Seder HaDorot HaKatzar, the last surviving brother was Levi, who died 93 years after the descent to Egypt.

This means that the persecution in Egypt was reduced from the original 400 years to 117 years; and slavery began only 31 years after that, meaning that the final and bitterest stage lasted 86 years.

The Midrash sees an allegorical reference to this in King Solomon’s words, “Behold! – the winter has passed, the rain has passed, it has gone away” (Song of Songs 2:11):

“‘Behold! – the winter has passed’ are the 400 years which were [originally] decreed for our ancestors to be in Egypt; ‘the rain has passed, it has gone away’ are the 210 years [that they were actually there]. Are ‘winter’ and ‘rain’ not the same? – Rabbi Tanchuma said: The main suffering [of winter] is the rain, and so too Israel’s main suffering in Egypt was the [final] eighty-six years, [which began] when Miriam was born” (Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah 2:11 [1]).

The Midrash then explains the name Miriam (מִרְיָם) to be an allusion to “they embittered (וַיְמָרְרוּ) their lives” (Exodus 1:14).

But how would life have looked to an Israelite who was living through these events?

At the time when Levi died, we had been comfortably ensconced in Egypt for 93 years – well over one-third of the entire history of the United States. To put that another way: when Levi died, Jews were as well-established in Egypt as they had been in the USA several years after the Civil War had finished.

What could possibly go wrong?

And this established the pattern for all future exiles.

Jews first arrived in England in 1070, invited over by King William I, and for generations lived there comfortably and safely. It was only 120 years later, in the reign of King Richard I (1189-1199), that discrimination and persecution began.

This means that for fully 120 years, fully half of the entire history of the USA, Jews lived in comfort, safety, wealth, and security in England.

What could possibly go wrong?

But from 1189 and for the next century, kings and bishops sometimes deliberately provoked attacks on Jews, sometimes (usually unsuccessfully) attempted to protect the Jews from Christian mobs and their massacres.

And on 18th of July (9th of Av) 1290, King Edward I decreed that all the Jews in his kingdom be expelled. Thus 220 years of Jewish history in England came to an ignominious end.

The first Jews in Spain had come there even before the Roman Empire, and with the advent of Christianity suffered persecution for centuries under the Catholic Church. But in 711 the Arab Moslems invaded, made common cause with the Jews, and the Jews of Spain lived in comfort, safety, wealth, and security for fully three-and-a-half centuries – almost one-and-a-half times longer than the USA has existed!

What could possibly go wrong?

But in the mid-11th century discrimination began, rapidly followed by persecution. The first actual massacre of Jews in Moslem Spain was on 9th-10th of Tevet 4827 (30th-31st December 1066) when Moslem mobs slaughtered some 6,000 Jews – and the Jews of Spain would never really feel secure again.

As Moslem Spain was beginning to persecute its Jews, at the other end of Europe a new haven, a new golden exile, was coming into being. The Catholic Kingdom of Poland, established in 1025, was consolidated and reunited by Casimir I, and rapidly became renowned for its tolerance, particularly to Jews.

So Jews from all over Europe began streaming into Poland, which soon became known as Paradisus Judæorum, “Paradise for the Jews” (Latin). The Jews of Poland lived in comfort, safety, wealth, and security for fully six-and-a-half centuries – almost three times longer than the USA has existed!

What could possibly go wrong?

But in the mid-17th century Poland was wracked by turmoil, internal as well as external conflicts, and the Jews, as invariably when problems and uncertainty strike, bore the brunt. Discrimination against Jews began, rapidly deteriorating into persecution and massacres – and Jews have never been secure in Poland since.

Invariably countries eventually face challenges, get thrown into turmoil, society is disrupted, people face (or believe they are about to face) cataclysm, and either the leader or the people “do not know Joseph”, forget or deliberately ignore all that the Jews did for the country.
All exiles begin well. Jews come to countries in which they are welcomed, in which they can live freely, in which they can contribute to society. And invariably all goes well for some time – decades, generations, sometimes nturies.

And invariably countries eventually face challenges, get thrown into turmoil, society is disrupted, people face (or believe they are about to face) cataclysm, and either the leader or the people “do not know Joseph”, forget or deliberately ignore all that the Jews did for the country.

But I don’t want to end on a depressing or pessimistic note. This last year has been sufficiently depressing and challenging, disrupting the entire world, and all over the world people face (or believe they are about to face) cataclysm.

And of course the Jews of America believe themselves to be safe. They do, after all, live in maybe the strongest, stablest, healthiest, and wealthiest democracy the world has even known.

And after living in comfort, safety, wealth, and security for well-nigh two-and-a-half centuries, what could possibly go wrong?