The Book of Exodus begins in a strange way. It tells us that the current Pharoah doesn’t know of Joseph and his family.
We read recently in Parshat Shmot:
There arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph.
Pretty quickly after this verse, we get into the familiar narratives of the plagues and the Exodus … but to start, the Torah gives us this context. This new Pharoah would not follow in the footsteps of the previous Pharoah who had welcomed Joseph to leadership in his court and offered food and safety to the entire clan of Jacob during a famine.
So the Torah is warning us that this new Pharoah is of a different mindset. He is paranoid, he is power hungry and he is cruel enough to enslvae the Israelites for over 200 years with no hope for freedom or dignity.
What really strikes me, however, is that the Torah says this Pharoah didn’t know Joseph. Obviously he didn’t know him personally … they lived in different eras. But I find it surprising that there is no history between one Pharoah and the next about who are friends and who are foes. There is no generation to generation of oral history or guidance that passes between Pharoahs.
Surely this Pharoah had heard something about the family of Joseph and the Israelite people or he wouldn’t have been so afraid of their potential power.
Come let us deal wisely with them, lest the multiply, and when a war comes, they will join with our enemies and fight against us
But there is a breakdown. While one Pharoah befriended the Israelites, another, just a generation later, sees them as a mortal enemy. How quick the tides can change.
This breakdown got me thinking these days because as Jews we take the mitzvah of memory and transmission of history from generation to generation so seriously. Ironically, although this new Pharoah didn’t remember Joseph and his family, we – many. many, many generations beyond – do! And not only do we remember our ancestors, but we remember the Egyptians too.
So why does the Torah highlight this distinction between Pharoah One and Pharoah Two?
Perhaps the Torah is pointing to the power of one voice and the responsibility of leadership. Perhaps Pharoah One didn’t properly educate Pharoah Two; perhaps Pharoah Two had a cruel streak and just needed a victim to take advantage of.
Or perhaps the Torah is reminding us of the role of the people. If the Egyptian people had stood up for their Israelite neighbors then perhaps the spiral of slavery, drowning Jewish babies, plagues and death of the Egyptian first born could have been avoided.
This past month our congregation has lost quite a few members. A young woman, who loved every kind of adventure and daredevil activity and yet was serious about her career and her family. A grandfather who was unPC and unconventional and still beloved by a gigantic circle of family and friends, and others. Another grandfather who loved flashy clothes even flashier cars. They were all unconventional, but all loved and honored for the real lives they lived.
In every funeral I have ever done over 20 years, the essence of the loved one is understood and known by the next generation. For better or for worse, there is a transmission between the deceased and their circle of family and friends.
Unlike Pharaohs one and two, our commandment to remember is essential. Whether on the communal level as we do with our holidays and Torah traditions, or on a personal level between grandparents, parents and children memory gives us context and a foundation for our lives.
Rabbi Amy Rader