A Pharaoh Who Knew Not Joseph
This week, I had a hard time turning off the news. I was especially troubled by and fixated on the reports that many in our government believe that our country must be protected from those who seek to enter it.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the people these political leaders wanted to keep out. Every press conference seemed to suggest that these leaders were simply interested in protecting our country from those who would wish to harm us. But, I couldn’t find any comments about the other people who would be kept from entering the United States- those who are seeking a place to rebuild, those who wish to ensure the safety of their families, and those who are searching for a different destiny for themselves and their children. What about them?
I was proud to see leaders from the Reform Movement of Judaism as well as others representing all different Jewish backgrounds stand up and reject the idea that our country must be protected from those seeking safety and the promise of a new future. In the responses of our Jewish leaders there was a consistent theme: We have been on the other side of this equation.
Throughout our history, our people have had to rely on the hospitality of various countries, and we have lived and died depending on whether we were met with open arms or locked gates.
American Jews seem to share a kind of communal memory that helps us all identity as an immigrant people. In fact, many people in our synagogue have parents or grandparents who were the first in their families to set foot on American soil.
I haven't been able to stop thinking about how each of our families arrived in this country. As many of you know, I am a passionate family historian. So passionate in fact that I have decorated my apartment with enlarged and framed copies of census sheets and naturalization records. Because of this, my ancestors and their stories, including the moments when they entered the United States, are part of my daily life.
You see, my sisters and I can claim long roots in America. Six of our eight great-grandparents were born in the United States. The two that were not born in this country were Swedish Lutherans named Anders Hästö Anderson and Hilma Sofia Gastgivars. Five of our 16 great, great grandparents were born in the United States. The three of our 32 great, great, great grandparents that were born in the United States were Jewish and born in the late 1850’s.
I never met any of my relatives who immigrated to this country. All of them had passed away years and years before I was born. And yet, despite having more than one hundred and sixty years of family history in America, I am keenly aware of the fact that I am here today because members of my family packed up their lives in Finland, Sweden, Ireland, Poland, Germany, Lithuania, and Russia and were able to gain entry into this country.
When we hear the words immigrants and refugees used as monoliths representing thousands of nameless, faceless people, we are ethically responsible to stop and to look past those labels to see the faces of men, women, and children.
We are ethically responsible to be self-aware and to remember that our families were at one point immigrants and refugees. Even though our families may have arrived fifty, one hundred, one hundred and fifty, or more years ago, we are ethically responsible to incorporate those who are currently searching for a new beginning into our families’ and our nation’s narratives.
Last week, we began reading from the Book of Exodus. The Torah portion, Shemot, began with the names of all of the family members who accompanied Jacob into Egypt. This week’s Torah portion, Va-era, begins with God’s instructing Moses and Aaron on how to rescue the Israelites from slavery.
What changed in the trajectory of the tribe of Israel? How did we go from a family entering and being welcomed into a prosperous land to the necessity of divine intervention? How did we get to the moment where the only way to save the Israelites was by filling the land with plagues of darkness, disease, fear, and suffering?
What was the moment that tipped the scale toward this eventuality?
“And there arose a new king over Egypt who knew not Joseph.”
These words from Exodus 1:8 ring ominously as we know that this new Pharaoh would be the one to enslave the Israelites. But, as I read them again this year, for the first time, I heard a second meaning reverberating underneath that ominous sound.
This one sentence, “And there arose a new king of Egypt who knew not Joseph,” is so painfully tragic. Not so long ago, Joseph and the Pharaoh had been brothers, partners, leaders working for the betterment of both of their peoples.
And then we are introduced to this Pharaoh, who knew not Joseph, and what we should immediately understand is that this lack also meant that he did not know himself. He no longer remembered his own history or the histories of his predecessors. He had forgotten, or worse, never taken the time to learn that it had been Joseph who had saved his people. It had been Joseph that his predecessor had celebrated with when he was reunited with his brothers. It had been Joseph that his predecessor had comforted in his grief as a caring friend.
In the opening chapters of Exodus, we transition from the flourishing nation of Israel living comfortably in Egypt to the nightmare where the Israelites have been betrayed and enslaved- where a new Pharaoh sits on a threatened and threatening throne. And the only hint that we are given as to the reason for this change is that this new Pharaoh forgot who he was, who he had been, whom he came from. When the Pharaoh forgets, he is no longer capable of empathy, of looking at others and remembering what his family owes them, how his family resembles them, how his strength has been built on generations of friendships and relationships with the , and so his kingdom fills with suffering.
This story tells us that we are responsible for remembering our own histories, for looking into the hearts of our neighbors and finding their reflections in our own lives- in our own hearts- and for approaching each person with empathy and with respect for their journeys.
We are responsible for remembering that when some of our family members entered this country, they were met with suspicions and fear and that we have the ability to make that same journey less arduous, less perilous for other families.
When we forget our own history, we lose any ability to act with empathy. When we forget our own history, we become pharaohs who know not Joseph.
On this Shabbat, we take time to unlock our hearts with empathy. On this Shabbat, we commit to remembering.