Torah from Around the World #360
Parashat Shemot (Exodus 1:1 – 6:1)
By: Rabbi Michel Schlesinger*
Behaving as a People
We are starting the second book of the Torah with Parashat Shemot, the Exodus. The book which we have just read, Bereshit (Genesis), besides the creation of the world, tells the story of a family – the family of the patriarchs. The first book of the Torah begins with the account of a single man and a single woman, and ends with several chapters about Abraham, Sarah and all of their descendants and aggregates.
Something different happens in Shemot. The narrative around a single family will be abandoned and give way to the saga of an entire nation. No longer will a single family nucleus be at the center of history, rather we will now focus on the difficulties and achievements of all the people of Israel.
“Vaiacom melech chadásh al mitsráim asher lo iada et Iossêf.” “And there arose a new king over Egypt that knew not Yosef.” Although this is not the first sentence of the book of Exodus, it serves as a preview for all that is to come.
Rashi, a French commentator of the eleventh century, refers us to a discussion in the Talmud between Rav and Shmuel. One believed that the above-quoted verse refers to the ascension of a new ruler over the land of Egypt. The other thought that he remained the same and that only his decrees were changing. The first sage reads the verse literally and interprets the words “new king” as indicating the ascension of a new ruler. The second understands the same expression as an indication that the ruler remained the same, but his convictions had begun to change.
We know that Yosef played an essential role in the life of Egypt, and that thanks to his help Egypt was able to face a crisis that affected the whole region. In Yosef’s time the people of Israel performed all of their burials in Egyptian lands as a form of thanksgiving for the performance of that son of Israel.
Did the “new king” not know Yosef – not even of his existence? It’s hard to believe. Egypt is considered a great civilization and is well known for having documented and perpetuated every landmark event in its national history. I believe the “new king” knew of Yosef’s existence and knew very well the role he had played in saving the Egyptian economy. I believe, then, that the second Talmudic interpretation is the most correct.
The king was not new, but his intentions underwent a transformation. Seeing the growth of the People of Israel in Egyptian lands, the old king began to change. The ruler who knew Yosef and acknowledged everything that had happened in the past chose not to recognize him anymore. At that moment the ruler became a “new king” and ignored all that the descendant of the house of Israel had done to save the land of Egypt.
By ignoring our past contributions, Pharaoh tried to condemn us to always being nothing more than a family. When he failed to acknowledge the deeds of Yosef, the Egyptian dictator wanted to keep us from having a common past so that we would never become a people.
After all, nations are a set of families united by a common history and intertwined by the same goals. Let us know how to defeat Pharaoh and pass from Bereshit to Shemot. May we behave as a people, as a community and not just a tangle of families.
*Rabbi Michel Schlesinger, a Conservative Rabbi, works at Congregação Israelita Paulista, São Paulo, Brazil and is the representative of the Brazilian Jewish Confederation on interreligious dialogue.
We are sharing the sermon through the courtesy of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. We are immensely grateful to the WUPJ.