Rabbi David Rifkin
Former Training Coordinator at Torah Mitzion
In the beginning of Sefer Shemot, we find the most puzzling pasuk in terms of understanding the recent history of Egypt.” And there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Yosef” Shmot 1:8. As we know Yosef was the viceroy in Egypt, second in command to Paroh himself. “Only by the throne shall I outrank you”. This was the stamp of approval that Paroh gave Yosef in Bereishit 41:40 For the purposes of a modern day analogy, he was the equivalent of a vice-President in the US or vice-Premier here in Israel. This “vice” position is often irrelevant, frustrating for the individual and hugely underappreciated. [Just ask Dan Quail about all the famous jokes!!] However we all know that this was not the case with Yosef. He was so significant and important. Indeed, he was crucial to the very survival of the Egyptian Empire and people. His ingenious 7 year survival plan saved Egypt from the rabid famine plaguing the entire region and turned Egypt into the envy of all the surrounding nations.
So, how was it possible not to know Yosef? I imagine that if you asked any Egyptian at the time, who Yosef was, they would know! But Paroh did not know him! Rashi helps us with this question, based on the Gemara in Sotah 11a. “And there arose a new king” Rav claims that he was literally a new king; Shmuel maintains that he was the same king with new decrees. “…who did not know Yosef”- he pretended not knowing Yosef. More accurately, we can understand Rashi’s approach to mean that in order to progress with his evil plan for the Jews he totally ignored all of the abovementioned achievements by Yosef. [It is important to note at this point, that the there are various views, amongst the Bible commentators explaining the views of the Amoraim Rav and Shmuel in the Gemara regarding the words “new king”. The Ibn Ezra (1092-1167) maintains that he was a totally new king from a new dynasty who did not know Yosef, hence the use of the verb “vayakom” from the word to establish, as in a new dynasty. The Chizkuni –(approx 1250) differs, however, and maintains that this was indeed the same Paroh, who simply changed his policies, adopting a “new” campaign of anti-Semitism. The Chizkuni explains the verb “vayakom” to mean “kam al Yisrael ke-oyeiv” he arose as an enemy over Israel.]
Returning to Rashi’s commentary on the words “who did not know Yosef”, there is another question that can be asked. Why did he have to pretend not to know Yosef in order to implement his evil plan? After all, he was the boss, the one who had the final say on all matters regarding policy in Egypt. In the overall context of his plan which we see in verses 9-12 of the first chapter of Shmot, one could argue that it makes no difference whether he knew Yosef or not, so why does the Torah need to tell us that he did not know Yosef?
The answer to this question can be found in the famous translation/commentary of the Targum Onkelus, from the second century, on these words “And there arose a new king over Egypt who did not implement the decrees of Yosef” Explaining this translation, Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik maintains that Yosef implemented many laws and decrees that benefited the Jews in Egypt, and immediately the new Paroh abandoned these laws. This was the meaning of the words “who did not know Yosef”, based on Targum Onkelus. Subsequently, Paroh was able to implement his evil plan for the Jews, because he outlawed all the beneficial laws that Yosef had implemented earlier.
There is one further explanation of these words, which can perhaps summarize much of the strategy behind Paroh’s new policy towards the Jews. “who did not know Yosef”- who did not learn and understand what had happened to Yosef. Paroh refused to accept that all of Yosef’s history from the pit to the vice-premiership could be summarized in one expression gam zu latova it is all for the best. Even situations that appear to be bad, at the end work out for the good. Paroh’s hatred was so determined that he failed to fully realize that even if he was to embark on an evil plan against the Jews, this in turn would eventually lead to his own [Paroh] and his nation’s demise. An interesting proof for this idea can be seen from Targum Yonatan ben Uziel, dating back some 2000 years, “deloh chakim yat Yosef” – meaning he did not learn the obvious lesson, that we mentioned above, regarding the Yosef story.
In conclusion, based on the view of Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik, Paroh was compelled to pretend that he did not know Yosef in order to apply his evil plan for the Jews. He reasons, that the Egyptian people would probably have argued vehemently against his plan, based on the above facts that we have mentioned: they could tangibly appreciate all that Yosef had done for them; they perhaps also had some understanding of gam zu latova from Yosef’s story. Therefore, Paroh needed to totally ignore or deny the existence of Yosef in order to justify his plan.
We have seen over the generations, time and time again how our enemies refuse to learn the lesson of Paroh in Egypt. May Hashem bless us that we, as a nation will continue to grow from strength to strength and may Hashem always thwart our enemies’ plans.