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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Parshat Shemot: From Fear to Knowing

This week we begin reading the book of Shemot/Exodus with Parshat Shemot (Ex. 1:1 - 6:1). In reading the beginning of this familiar story of slavery and redemption, I could not help but be struck by verse 8 “and a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” There are many commentaries about this verse. Some say that he just didn't want to acknowledge all that Joseph had done. Others said that he did not remember about Joseph or that so many year had passed that the new Pharaoh just simply didn't know what Joseph had done for Egypt. His name had become a distant memory.

And yet the fact that he did not know Joseph then led Pharaoh to fear the Israelites. They had grown so numerous, he was concerned that they would eventually rise up against him. And so he made them slaves. They were forced into hard labor and task masters were placed over them. Then, still afraid that they might rise up against him in the future, he decreed that all male babies were to be killed. Of course, as the text tells us, the midwives refused to kill the male children and eventually our hero, Moses, is born.

I couldn't help but be struck by the simplicity of the verse phrase “a new king arose who did not know Joseph...” Some of the translations I found added phrases such as “who did not know Joseph or acknowledge all he had done.” But this is simply a commentary or expansion. The verse simply states that he did not know Joseph and this contributes, or perhaps even causes, his extreme reaction against the Israelites.

In Biblical Hebrew, the word for “know” is yada ידע . This verb also means to know intimately in a sexual way. It can also mean to acknowledge or approve. Either way, it implies more than just a surface knowledge of something or someone. Rather, it implies either an intimate knowledge. It is Pharaoh's inability to have this kind of knowledge that makes him fear the Israelites. As descendants of Joseph and his family, he does not understand or acknowledge them. They are simply a nuisance and a possible political problem. The fact that they are growing as a nation is a threat to him. And yet, if he had truly remembered and known Joseph, he might have realized that their presence could be an asset rather than a potential liability.

So often in our lives we think we know the reality of a situation. We think we understand what is going on in our lives and our world. And yet, so often we are as clueless as Pharaoh. We see what is going on, but we don't take the time to really know what is happening. Once again, it is our ego that prevents us from seeing clearly and causes us to take destructive, often self-destructive, action. Like Pharaoh, we try to enslave or suppress those people and things in our life that we see as dangerous. We try to kill or destroy what makes us afraid. But this fear is based on a lack of knowledge or a lack of connection with the reality and essence of the moment.

Historian George Santayana wrote that those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it. Rabbi Alan Lew wrote that those who cling to tightly to history and don't let go of the story are also doomed to repeat it. We must somehow find a balance in each moment that allows us to acknowledge the past while remembering that we are living in the present. Pharaoh could not find that balance. He simultaneously chose to forget and to remember all too well the past, and this led to his fear that the Israelites might overwhelm him

Pharaoh chose, most likely out of fear, to not even acknowledge the existence of someone who helped his people and country to survive. Or perhaps it was because he did inded remember that Joseph had been so powerful that he feared a potential nation of Josephs! In this way, he remembered too well, but he remembered incorrectly because his memory was clouded by his ego. Either way, it was the ego's fear that led him to his destructive behavior.

There is no way to know for sure what caused Pharaoh to act as he did and to set in motion what ultimately became a great tragedy for him, his family and his nation. But if he had been able to be in the present and to find some sense of balance in terms of his memory of the past, without the ego playing its tricks, perhaps he could have welcomed the flourishing of the Israelites as a phenomenon that would have simply aided the flourishing of Egypt.

But alas, fear, ignorance and ego were his downfall, just as they are for so many of us. As we read this story let us remember that we all have the potential to act as Pharaoh did out of fear and ego. But if we allow our fear (which is a natural part of life) to draw us in rather than close us off, perhaps we will be able to see what is really beneath it all: the natural fear of the uncertainty of life. The ego reacts to this fear of uncertainty by striking out at anything that it might view as a threat. But if simply let go of the egos stories, we can embrace that fear, while also embracing the joy of living. Only then can we truly know and acknowledge the forces that have brought us to where we are and bless the moment with all of its contradictions and complication. If Pharaoh had done that, who knows how the story might have played out?

Shabbat Shalom,


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