Shemot 5777 - 2017 - Denial on The Nile

Post date: Jan 19, 2017 7:27:39 PM

This week we begin the book of Shemot – literally, the book of names. It is so called, as it begins with the recitation of the names of the sons of Jacob (Israel) who came to Egypt. Its Greek name, Exodus, more accurately reflects the subject matter of the entire book. We read that Jacob's family numbered 70 persons, and that Joseph and all of his generation died. The verse that follows states, uv’nei yisrael p'ru v’yishretzu va’yirbu va’am’zu be’m’od m’od – and the children of Israel were fruitful and they increased and became many and became very, very mighty.*

Interestingly, this is language similar to that used in the book of Bereshit (Genesis). There, God blesses the first people, and says to them, p’ru v’ur’vu u’me’lu et ha’aretz – be fruitful and become many and fill up the earth.** However, in the verse from Shemot, the Torah adds that the Israelites am’zu be’m’od m’od – they became very, very mighty. The strength of the Israelites will soon become apparent, as we see them go through terror and heartache as slaves to Pharaoh, remaining strong enough to rebel and eventually become free.

The reading continues with this infamous line, va’yaqom melech chadash al mitzrayim asher lo yadaa et yoseph – and there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.

I find this to be one of the most fascinating statements in the Torah – a king, who did not know Joseph. From archeological evidence, we are fairly certain Egyptians had one of the earliest forms of written communication – a groundbreaking invention in the advance of human civilization. It allowed human beings, for the first time, to communicate and retain knowledge across multiple generations. Egyptians are famous for pyramids, for their love of cats, for their farming, and for their hieroglyphics - their written accounts!

It is absurd to believe that a king of this advanced fertile crescent civilization did know about the man who had saved the previous generation of all Egypt through preparation for a great famine. If nothing else, the Egyptian ruling class would remember this period in history selfishly, in order to ensure their society remained nourished if another famine were to come.

So, how is it that Pharaoh does not know Joseph? I think what is also interesting is the choice of words here – the Torah says, lo yadaa - did not know. Importantly, it does not say, lo zachar – did not remember. Rather – lo yadaa – he did not know. What is the difference between knowing and remembering? When we look at the brain, millions and millions of pieces of information, stories, procedures, actions, and more are stored in our memory. We “remember” millions and millions of things. However, we do not always have conscious access to these memories. When we intentionally go and retrieve a piece of information or a procedure, we then “know” such information.

I may “remember” (as in, stored the information somewhere in my brain) the name of my 3rd grade teacher. Until I go and fetch this information, I do not know it – I have no ready, conscious access to it.

I would argue, then, that the difference between remembering and knowing is that we choose to know, while our brains make us capable of remembering.

This may be evident when asking a child if they have any homework, if they practiced their instrument, or if they are to complete their project this weekend – the response, “I don’t know” may be communicating more a desire to not remember, than their lacking the information entirely.

The description of Pharaoh, in this light, has a different connotation. It is not that he did not have information about Joseph, but rather that he consciously chose not to access or use such information. One can imagine the conversation between Pharaoh and his advisors.

“Are you sure we are to enslave them? Are they not the descendants of Joseph, who saved Egypt from the famine?”

“I don’t know.” – This is not the response of a clueless man, but rather a sinister denial from a man determined to destroy the people who am’zu be’m’od m’od – who had become very, very mighty.

Shabbat Shalom,

Yvonne Asher

* For an elaboration on the word ve'yishretzu, please see a previous d'rash here.

** "Be fruitful and multiply" is considered, in Judaism, to be the first of the 613 commandments in the Torah.