A Lesson for Diaspora “Jewish Leaders”

29 March 2011

Towards the end of the book of Bereishit (Genesis) it says:

And when the days of weeping for him were past, Joseph spoke unto the house of Pharaoh, saying: “If now I have found favor in your eyes, speak, I pray you, in the ears of Pharaoh, saying: (Bereishit 50:4)

My father made me swear, saying: Behold, I am dying; in my grave which I have dug for myself in the land of Canaan, there shalt thou bury me. Now therefore let me go up, I pray thee, and bury my father, and I will come back.” (Bereishit 50:5)

In other words, when Jacob died his son Joseph turned to Pharaoh’s household in order that they request permission from Pharaoh to allow him to fulfill his oath of burying his father in Hebron.

However, something is very wrong here which should be jumping out at us! Just seventeen years earlier Joseph was the number two man in all of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself. So why on earth is he requesting permission via Pharaoh’s household and not directly from Pharaoh?

The answer is obvious. When Pharaoh needed him, in Joseph’s case during the difficult years of the famine, Pharaoh smiled at him and raised him up to be his assistant, a sort of vice-Pharaoh. However, once he fulfilled his role, he was discarded. In other words, Pharaoh used him for his own reasons.

The lesson here should be clear to us. All those Jews, whether once upon a time in Spain or Germany or today in America, that think they’re close to the president or king and even believe that they have influence with him, should keep in mind that the minute things change and they’re not needed, they will be forgotten in an instant. Thus, don’t build your future or the future of your community based upon such supposed closeness.

This idea is perhaps hinted at in the very beginning of the book of Shemot (Exodus) when it says”

Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph. (Shemot 1:8)

The Hebrew word used here for “know” is strangely yada but heceer would have been more suitable. Yada usually means to have an intimate knowledge of something while heceer is to know someone or something, to be familiar with him. Yada, however, can also mean knowing someone such as “Adam knew (yada) Eve”, which means he had an intimate connection with her, sort of becoming one with her. Yada is a very deep internal connection.

Thus it’s obvious that the new king (or the same king according to some commentators) knew (heceer) about or was familiar with Joseph, since he was surely famous for how he saved Egypt. But the new king didn’t have a deep connection with him (yada), he didn’t relate to him. Josephs the Jew, the Hebrew slave, was brought close to royalty when he was needed to help them. Afterwards, he and his people were tossed away.

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6 Responses to A Lesson for Diaspora “Jewish Leaders”

  1. Razi Yerushalmi says:

    Yoel, I’d like to comment on some technical issues rather than the content of your blog entry. First, I know no-one, nor do I know anybody who knows someone, who uses the word ‘Lo’ in the English they speak. (‘Yo’, maybe, but no ‘Lo’). Using an archaic form of English to represent very modern ideas as stated in the Torah is offputting to me, and throws up a barrier towards understanding what the text is saying. I suggest you consider using a more modern, colloquial translation of the biblical sources so that real people can really relate to them.

    Secondly, transliterating the Hebrew is a tricky issue, something I have been thinking about for some time now. I don’t have a comprehensive system, but I think it requires close examination, because it is very easy to misrepresent how the language is spoken. I think you can develop a system for representing the Hebrew words in Latin characters that will be clear to a large majority of your readers.

    Those are my two cents for you -

  2. Elyahou says:

    Dear Yoel

    The comment might be Logic but at the end who cares
    Your Tora comment is deep and easy to understand
    And true
    Hachem yevareheha

  3. Interesting take on the decline of Joseph’s influence which seems to be hinted at in the text itself. The Meam Loez (in Kaplan’s translation) makes a similar point about how Joseph had to subjugate himself to Pharaoh and no longer enjoyed his previous power. This was the beginning of the exile. Kaplan also makes the point in his notes that the rule of Egypt at this time was Thutmose II who was a weak leader, and Jacob’s death may have emboldened him to diminish Joseph’s authority.

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