Torah portion: The destruction of memory
“A new king arose over Egypt, who knew not Joseph. And [Pharaoh] said to his people: Behold, a nation — the Children of Israel — are more numerous and mightier than we. Come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply … for when it happens that a war befalls us, they too shall join our enemies, and fight against us, and leave the land. And so they set taskmasters upon them … to afflict them with their burdens …” (Exodus 1:8-11).
Before the curse of the mallet and the tyrannical command of the lash, before Egypt grew into a horror house of bondage, there occurred a peculiar act of ignorance: “A new king arose over Egypt, who knew not Joseph.”
Whether this king indeed knew nothing of Joseph has long been a matter of some debate. Historically, it is possible that a new monarchy arose, on the heels of some war, perhaps, which held none of the old allegiances to Joseph and his family. Others argue that this “new” Pharaoh was well aware of how Joseph saved Egypt from economic collapse, but like many a dictator, Pharaoh feigned unfamiliarity whenever it suited him.
One might ask how the fate of an entire people could hinge on the dissipating memory of a single individual? And even so, given that servitude is a crime particularly heinous, don’t the preliminaries leading to one nation’s enslavement of another seem of little import in the greater scheme of a nation’s unimaginable distress?
But the Torah may have wished to inform us of a powerful idea — that ignorance is always the precursor to persecution. When we forget the humanity of our fellows, when we forget those initial chapters of Genesis, wherein God endows each of us with his very image and breath, that’s when violence is sure to follow.
Joseph, if we recall, was described as a “man of God,” “a man of wisdom”; (Genesis 41:38-39). his wisdom and compassion save Egypt and its people from the perils of famine, and yet it is this Joseph of whom Pharaoh is unaware. When Moses first encounters Pharaoh, Pharaoh asks mockingly, “Who is this Hebrew God that I should heed his voice?” (Exodus 5:2). Within a heart of darkness, one finds a heart that also revels in ignorance.
It is no coincidence, then, that the panacea to persecution is an act of memory. We read later in this week’s Torah portion, “And God heard [Israel’s] cries, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And God saw the Children of Israel, and God knew” (Exodus 2:24-25). In the very next chapter, God sets Moses on the path to rescuing Israel. The restoration of a people is thus linked to a restoration of memory.
I have long found it fascinating that the culprits in the beginning of Exodus all happen to be men. In contrast, with the exception of Moses, exclusively women carry out heroic behavior. It is Pharaoh and his taskmasters who set to casting Hebrew male infants into the Nile, while it is Egypt’s midwives who interfere. In terms of Moses’ rescue, his father and brother do nothing, rather it is his mother, sister and, finally, Pharaoh’s own daughter who conspire to save Moses’ life.
Against this backdrop, let us read the following verses describing events in Moses’ early life. “When Moses had grown, he went out to his brethren to see their suffering. And he saw an Egyptian man striking an Israelite man — his brother. He turned this way and that, and seeing no man, Moses struck the Egyptian” (Exodus 2:11-12). In context, Moses turns about to see if there were any Egyptian men who might witness what he intended to do. The subtext, however, is that there was not a man around, beside Moses, who could “act like a man” in the moral sense and save this battered Israelite.
On the following day, Moses attempts to stop “two Israelite men” who were fighting. The instigator asks Moses acerbically: “Who appointed you a man, an officer, and a judge over us” (Exodus 2:14)? In context, Moses is being told to stay away, to mind his own business. But the subtext is a vanquished whisper: There are no men here, not anymore.
Every last Israelite man had forgotten how to be a man — how to act like a human being. Moses’ brethren resent him because they despise themselves. There was certainly valor among Israel’s women, but for its men, under whip and truncheon, there was only defeat. They, too, forgot Joseph.
Rabbi Yehuda Hausman is the spiritual leader of the The Shul on Duxbury, an independent Orthodox minyan. He is a teacher at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, and a lecturer at American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies. He writes about the weekly parsha on his blog, rabbihausman.com.