"The New King" Parshat Shmot, Jan. 21, 2017

      The verse that jumps out of our parsha as apropos to this week’s events is:  ויקם מלך חדש על מצרים, that a new king arose over Mitzryim (1:8)  We hope that the new leader who has risen over our country will fare better that this Pharaoh did, in his relationship with the Jewish community as well as in respect to his leadership of his country overall.

      The first thing that we are told about this new king is that לא ידע את יוסף, that he did not know Joseph.  Meaning, that he did not know, did not remember, or pretended not to remember Joseph.  We usually think that of description in respect to our Jewish self-interest.  Yosef was our “protectzia”; he was our “in” with Pharaoh.  The Jewish People remained protected because of Yosef’s relationship with Pharaoh and once that relationship was threatened, our security was compromised, which indeed happened. 

      At the same time, Pharaoh’s failure to know, remember, or pay attention to his own history led to the demise of his position in office, as well as the deterioration of the Egyptian empire.  Pharaoh was convinced, and convinced his people, that the Jewish People were the biggest threat to the security of Egypt.  He allocated his country’s resources towards a strategy that would defend himself against the Jews.  It was true that the Jews were different from the other Egyptians, and it may have been difficult for him to understand them.  However, they were not a threat, and he should have known that.  If only he would have remembered his own history, he would have known that since the day that the first Jew stepped foot into Egypt, they have only been supportive of Egypt.  He would have known that it was the loyalty of Joseph to Pharaoh that enabled Egypt as a nation, and Pharaoh as an individual, to amass the wealth and strength that it enjoyed.  This new Pharaoh was born into one of the strongest positions of leadership, in one of the strongest countries of the world.  Pharaoh’s failure to understand this was responsible for his failures that would destroy everything that he had.

     Thus we see the importance of understanding one’s historical context.  This is true for everyone, and especially for someone who is in a position of important leadership.  However, there are times that it is just the opposite, and a focus on history can be a hindrance to success. 

     The verse with which we began: ויקם מלך חדש על מצרים אשר לא ידע את יוסף can also be homiletically applied to another person: to Moshe Rabenu himself.  Moshe had the halachik status of a King of the Jewish People once he emerged as the leader of the Jewish People in Parshat Shmot (for example, see Rashi 18:1).  At the same time, he too did not know Joseph because he was raised without any knowledge of his own ancestry or heritage.  The simple reading of the Chumash indicated that he did not identify as a Jew and did not even know of his own identity.  When he met the daughters of Yitro, they reported to their father that they met an איש מצרי, an Egyptian man (2:19). Moreover, when his first child was born, Moshe named him Gershom, because גר הייתי בארץ נכריה, because he was a stranger in a foreign land (2:22).  This seems to refer to the land of Midyan, which was distant from his homeland of Egypt, where he fled from.  Ironically, he was indeed a foreigner in Egypt for his entire life, distant from his ancestral land of Canaan.  Throughout our parsha, Moshe gradually gets to know his roots.  When God appeared to Moshe at the burning bush, God introduced himself to Moshe as “the God of your forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov” (3:6).  And once again, when Moshe asked God, “what is your name” God identified Himself as “the God of your forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov” (3:15).  Ultimately, Moshe internalized this awareness of his ancestry and had another son towards the end of the parsha, who he named Eliezer because אלקי אבי בעזרי, because the God of my father assists me (18:4).  Nevertheless, I believe that Moshe’s ignorance of historical context actually helped him at the outset:

     Moshe went out and saw injustice and protested the Egyptian who was attacking the Jew.  Then he saw a Jew attacking another Jew and Moshe protested once again.  Moshe indiscriminately protested injustice.  Had he considered the context, it is possible that he would have excused these behaviors.  Perhaps the Egyptian was raised with this anti-Semitic attitude and was not truly responsible, or perhaps he was merely following orders.  Perhaps the Jew attacked his friend because the percussion dulled his sense of morality.  Moshe was not influenced by any of this because his ignorance of the historical context enabled him to see things for what they were right now.  There are so many times in life that organizations function in seemingly illogical ways.  And when you question why it is, the answer starts with a lesson in history, explaining how things got to be the way that they are now.  However, sometimes our knowledge of the past blurs our judgement of the present.  This is the impediment that Moshe overcame.  At the same time, Moshe ultimately synthesizes the two, as he gradually learned of his history, but merged it with a focus on the present.

     There is another מלך, king, that is of importance this week, as we observed Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday.  When reflecting on the life of Martin Luther King Jr., and when teaching his story to children, the most incomprehensible thing is the understanding of his opposition.   It is mind boggling that so many years after the founding of our great country, which was predicated on the value of equality and liberty, so much racism continued to flourish in our otherwise moral society of educated and upright citizens.  How was it possible?

     I believe that the answer is history.  Thing do not need to make sense of be just if they were always that way.  People accepted the social norms because that is just what history thought.  And it took the greatness of King to ignore the past in order to focus on the present and to see the injustices for what they were, and to change them, in order to create history.

     The goal is to create the extraordinary balance: to study history, remember it and learn from it, while at the same time, always see things for what they are now, and not t be blinded by the past.  This can be challenging for anyone, especially a world leader, but perhaps we can take comfort in one thing:

     Megilat Ester tells the story of Purim and does not contain even one mention of God, whose role was hidden beneath the surface of the national affairs of Persia.  However, there is a tradition that the word “melech”, that refers to King Achashverosh, can also be understood to be a reference to the King of Kings, God.  This means that although the political leaders seem to be controlling national affairs, it is actually God who controls world history.  This fact was highlighted in the stories of Yosef and Moshe.  Yosef consistently reminded Pharaoh that it was God who was responsible for all of the success of Pharaoh and of Yosef.  Similarly, Moshe functioned as an emissary of God and sought to prove that God controls everything in the world.  In the same way, though the Purim story did not contain overt miracles, in retrospect, everything that occurred was orchestrated just right in order to execute the Will of God. 

     In our lives as well, it is important to strive for this balance, to understand context, but not to be blinded by it.  This is important for teachers, for parents and for every individual.  As our country begins a new chapter, we pray that we will see success, and that we will see this balance. We pray that indeed God will be closely monitoring our future, and that He will be the true President who leads our country to greatness, to success to justice and to promote the values that we cherish.

Fri, July 28 2017 5 Av 5777