This week’s parasha, Shemot, is the beginning of the book of Exodus, and the start of our story of the Exodus from Egypt.
Joseph dies and a new king arises over Egypt “who did not know Joseph”. Pharaoh gradually enslaves the Jews. He is afraid the Israelites have become so numerous and strong they could become Egypt’s enemies, so he decides to kill the boys and orders the Hebrew midwives to do so. The midwives disobey, and a generation of Jewish boys is saved.
Moses is born to Amram and his wife, Jocheved. Jochaved, fearing for her baby’s life, puts him in a basket of reeds and lets if float in the river, where Pharaoh’s daughter Bithiah finds him and raises him as a prince of Egypt.
As a man, Moses kills a slavemaster who is beating an Israelite; fearing punishment, he flees Egypt. Moses goes to Midian where he meets the priest, Jethro, and marries his daughter, Zipporah. Moses encounters God at a bush that burns without being consumed, and is commanded to go to Egypt to take His people out of Egypt. With the help of his brother, Aaron, Moses begins arguing with Pharaoh for the release of the Israelites so they can go into the Wilderness and worship God. Pharaoh refuses.
Since the Israelites were numerous and strong, how did Pharaoh enslave them? At the beginning of Pharaoh’s scheme, the Torah states a new king arose who “did not know Joseph”. Some rabbis interpret this to mean that there was a new king, and others that the king made new decrees. The Egyptians imposed a labor tax, by which the Israelites were required to work building cities. To get them to comply, Pharaoh wore a brick mold around his neck and if anyone complained that he was too weak to do the work, the Egyptians pointed to Pharaoh who was also working. (Talmud, Sotah 11b) The structures were built in swampy ground, the work fell down, and the construction had to be done over and over again – this useless repetition of backbreaking work robbed the Israelites’ toil of any meaning.
The harsh physical labor for no good reason was only part of the enslavement of the Children of Israel. Following Pharaoh’s false example, they became spiritually enslaved, as well. They began to practice the immoral customs of the Egyptians.
So perhaps it was not only Pharaoh who did not know Joseph, but also the Israelites. Joseph had lived among the Egyptians but had not adopted their customs. Even his sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, who were brought up in Egypt, lived Jewish lives; because of this, we bless Jewish boys to be like them.
Just as the Jews believed the false example of Pharaoh, the Egyptian false practices appealed to the Children of Israel, and they forgot Joseph’s ways of morality which had kept them strong. Following the teachings of the Patriarchs was work that could be as morally difficult as the physical labor ordered by Pharaoh, but the goal of the teachings was to honor God by acknowledging his many blessings through prayer and acts of kindness. Living in the way that Joseph would have taught would have preserved the Israelites in a higher spiritual level.
Try it yourself. Pick any mitzvah or act of kindness that you have never done or that you do only do sometimes. Now try it (or do it once again) and see how it makes you feel better – more spiritual. A great opportunity for this will be coming up next month when we celebrate Purim. Check out the four special mitzvot for Purim at www.ou.org/holidays/purim_mitzvot/ and give them a try. Some of them, such as giving gifts to others (Shalach Monot) and giving gifts to the poor (Matanot l’Evyonim), would be great projects for your troop or patrol.