Who Did Not Know Joseph: Parashat Sh’mot

Embed from Getty Images  Parashat Sh’mot Exodus 1:1 – 6:1  Each people is responsible for telling its own story. With this new book of the Torah we begin telling our own story as a people. But in telling our own story we necessarily  make use of another people’s story. And, as we tell our story, we come to witness the trajectories of two nations, one on the rise and one in descent. The children of Israel multiply and increase and flourish for a time, becoming ever stronger. Although they must suffer persecution and oppression, they endure and their spirit miraculously survives. This is an inspiring story and it is our story as the Jewish people, a story we tell and retell in our Torah readings and at our festival gatherings. Mostly we are interested in telling the story of the other nation, Egypt, only as it bears upon our own. We are neither Egyptians nor Egyptologists. The once mighty empire that was Egypt has not survived and it is of relevance for us only for the role it plays as the villain in our own story. But let us pause briefly to consider the Egyptian story, itself. If the Israelite story is about a people that triumphantly struggles to come into its own, the Egyptian story is about a people who step-by-step betray their own values and their own history. For Egypt had once been a nation, a world power, of extraordinary generosity and openness, although it was not a perfect society by any means. For instance, it was  structured in a severely hierarchical way, and it was known to abhor non-Egyptians, such as Hebrews (- see, e.g., Gen. 43:32).  Nevertheless, in a time of a regional crisis and famine, the Egyptians responded by opening their borders to everyone, even those people they couldn’t stand. They fed multitudes, including caravans of people who came from across the border. This policy, albeit conceived by the Hebrew, Joseph, was enthusiastically embraced by Pharaoh and by the general population, so many of whom ran the national system. It is literally because of that open-door and open-hearted policy that the children of Israel physically survived. Thus it emerges that, in deciding to follow a cruel leader and pursue a path of oppression of the Israelites, Egypt just as surely decided to pursue a path of national self-betrayal. Instead of at least grudgingly accepting people who were different,  they allowed their leader to play on their latent prejudices and sell them hateful conspiracy theories that justified callous cruelty and murder (See Ex. 1:10) When a new Pharaoh arose “who did not know Joseph,” (Ex. 1:8) he ushered in a new phase in Egypt’s own national memory, a phase in which Egypt no longer knew itself.  How could such a case of national moral and spiritual collapse happen? We may feel that it is not our job to reckon with that problem, for it is not part of “our” story. Our story merely preserves the bare remembrance of Egypt’s treachery against itself but, we tell ourselves, we are exempt from grappling with its questions. We are satisfied that the Egyptian story is not our own, but is only important as a foil for our own story of glorious national birth. But, as we revel in telling our own story, let us not forget that we owe our survival during those times of oppression precisely to the few courageous Egyptians who refused to forget what they were once capable of, and who fought against their own people’s national fear and amnesia. If there were no Pharaoh’s daughter there would be no Moses! Our survival depended on those people who somehow found a way to counter their own people’s moral retreat. Understanding how they took hold of and maintained their resistance must be part of our story, as well. And today, in our dark social and national reality, can we be sure that the ancient story of Egypt’s abandonment of its own best self is not becoming our own story, after all? — Please note: On January 1 I will be taking a 5-month sabbatical from my rabbinical duties at Congregation Shomrei Emunah. During that time I will be privileged to serve as the Daniel Jeremy Silver Fellow in the Center for Jewish Studies at Harvard. Therefore, this will be my last discussion of a Torah portion until I return in June. Thank you for learning Torah with me through this medium! If you wish to refer to my Torah Sparks from previous years you can go to the website of Congregation Shomrei Emunah and search under “Torah Learning” – http://www.shomrei.org/torahsparks2.asp May we all merit continued nourishment from the teachings of the Torah. Shabbat Shalom Rabbi David Greenstein Subscribe to Rabbi Greenstein’s weekly d’var Torah image:  AFP | Sandy Huffaker, used with permission via Getty Embed


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Rabbi David Greenstein

Rabbi David Greenstein

Rabbi David Greenstein arrived at Shomrei Emunah in August 2009 with a rich, broad and deep background as a rabbi, cantor, artist, scholar, and teacher. Being Shomrei’s rabbi, he says, allows him to draw on all of these passions, as well as his lifelong commitment to building Jewish communities.
Rabbi David Greenstein

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