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Forgetting Joseph

According to the Oral Tradition, one-hundred two years after Jacob and his family entered Egypt, the last of his sons passed away. It was Levi who died at the age of one-hundred thirty-seven. Parashat Shemot (Ex. 1:1–6:1) informs us that a “king arose who knew not Joseph.” Some commentaries suggest that the king was a foreigner who took the throne while others claim that it was the same pharaoh who ruled before the death of Levi but he had been persuaded to ignore the accomplishments of Joseph—if he could not be influenced, the pharaoh would be removed from power. If we consult sources such as Me’Am Loez it seems that all the opinions could be correct. The new king was the son of the previous pharaoh, who was a foreigner. When he died, the son was too young to be aware of Joseph’s profound impact on Egypt. The nobles who surrounded the throne went to work rewriting history, obliterating any mention of Joseph. The Egyptians quickly forgot how he had saved them from famine and built Egypt into a powerful nation.

With Levi’s passing the Egyptians began to enslave Israel, hoping to diminish their numbers. Further dehumanization of Israel led to the final solution: Tossing male Hebrew infants into the Nile. The sages tell us that one of the many reasons for drowning the infants in the Nile was that Israel’s God would not retaliate against Egypt because He had promised to never flood the world again.

Egypt had forgotten Joseph but God remembered His People with the birth of Moses who was saved from death by being hidden in a reed basket and placed in the Nile. But salvation for the Children of Israel wouldn’t begin until Moses was eighty years old and standing at the Burning Bush.

Moses’ compassion for his people’s years of suffering made him doubt his own ability to convince them that he was sent by God to release them from their harsh servitude. HaShem gave Moses three signs to prove that he was the long-promised deliverer: The first was turning his staff into a snake. The second sign involved Moses putting his hand inside his cloak and then taking it out, leprous and then healing the hand. The third sign was turning water from the Nile into blood. All three signs were a demonstration that HaShem had ultimate power over life and death, as well as complete control over the creation.

The third sign, turning the Nile to blood, appears to be referenced in an ancient text known as the Ippuwer Papyrus which records how Egypt was destroyed by a series of "natural" calamities. Ippuwer does speak directly of the Nile being turned to blood but the same text also states, “He who poured water on the ground has captured the strong man in misery.” Compare that with Exodus 4:9: “God told Moses to take water from the river and pour it on the ground, and it would turn into blood.” This command to do so was HaShem’s way of demonstrating that the water of the Nile and later the Reed Sea could be used against Egypt for their evil deeds.

Convincing the pharaoh and his people to release Israel from bondage would need more than three signs. It would take a frightful year of Ten Plagues. The death of Joseph, years earlier, allowed the enemies of Israel to erase the memory of his enormous influence on the nation of Egypt. Today, we see this same evil process at work. People in power and in the streets have already forgotten how we cheered Israel's miraculous victory during the Six Day War. And we no longer regard Israel’s positive impact on modern medicine, technology and global disaster relief work. Ironically, it is a leader called Joseph whose forgetfulness and corruption has allowed the current wave of anti-Israel madness sweeping the nation.

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