Pharaoh Knew not Joseph (Sh'mot)

During one of the years when I served at Temple Israel in Omaha, Nebraska, we asked congregants to write and deliver the sermons during the summer months. We called it Sh'ma Yisrael. As I've said in the past, the Sh'ma is not only the imperative of Listen, you members of Yisrael, pay attention to the message that follows these words. It also urges us to listen to each other, and to know each other. The words, Sh'ma Yisrael, are the message!


This week's Torah portion is a major break from the previous chapters of Genesis. Similar to today's inagueration of America's 45th president, this Torah portion signals a significant change in leadership and policy.


The portion of Sh'mot starts a bit oddly. It lists the names of all of Jacobs sons that he brought with him to Egypt. It even pedantically reminds us that Jacob didn't bring Joseph to Egypt, for Joseph was already there. Imagine if someone asked you how you got to synagogue tonight. Would you start by saying that you left your house? It's an obvious detail that seems unecessary. In speeches and presentations, some believe that you repeat things twice, you 'tell 'em what you told 'em', but this is quite uncommon in our Torah. I'll get back to this.


During Joseph's time in Egypt, Jews grew in number and prosperity. We flourished. But then quite suddenly, everything changed. Our Torah continues, A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.

Our tradition teaches that our Torah portions often mirror situations and experiences in our lives. As such, I can not help but think of this in relation to the inagueration of our 45th president, President Donald Trump.

Each of us have our strong feelings and opinions about this president. Some members of our congregation are in Washington DC this Shabbat to march in solidarity and protest with other women, and others are marching downtown in Athens tonight. And, there are members of CCI that are supportive of President Trump, and feel that he will be a welcome change from our previous administration.


A new king arose over Egypt that did not know Joseph.

The verse speaks for itself; a new Pharaoh came to power and did not hold the Jews in the same esteem as the previous Pharoah. The new regime revoked their rights and securities. It would be bad enough if the new Pharoah ended a period of prosperity. But much more egregious and horrible than these policy changes is the fact that the new Parhaoh started a period of slavery that would last for 420 years.


Usually, when we read a verse of Torah, its most powerful interpretation comes from a metaphorical reading of the verse. Think of the famous words, Do not put a stumbling block before the blind. It obviously doesn't suggest that you should not place a literal block in a blind person's path. That would be ridiculous. The law reminds us that we need to help those who need help, physically, emotionally, spiritually. A literal reading of the verse renders it absurd, whereas a metaphorical reading transforms it into a central precept of Judaism.

But in this case, I do want to look at the verse literally.

A new king arose over Egypt that did not know Joseph.

I noted that just before this verse, Exodus begins with the listing of Joseph's brothers that were in Egypt with him. And if we adopt a literal reading of this verse, the listing of the names makes the verse that much more powerful. It reminds us that Joseph and his brothers are a significant part of Pharoah's constituency, and yet even still, A new king arose over Egypt that did not know.

I like to believe that if Pharoah took the time to get to know Joseph and his brothers, he wouldn't have been fearful of their growing numbers. He would not have been apprehensive of them. Instead of the Pharoah considering the Israelites as enemies, isn't it possible that they could have been partners?

I hope that each of us has had an experience when listening to someone helped to dispel apprenhension or fear or stereotyping. When we listen to someone, when we open our hearts and our minds, it's much harder to be like Pharoah who does not know Joseph. When we know, we listen. We care. We are empathetic. Knowing others creates partnership.


Today, as America starts a new portion of history, I pray that President Trump and his administration chooses to know Joseph, to know America and Americans - all Americans.

As for us, we must Sh'ma Yisrael, we must continue listening to the prophetic voices of our tradition and also to the voices of each other. Shabbat Shalom.

Never Again (International Holocaust Day)

To Exist or to Live, That is the Question (Vayechi)