Making Room for Hashem

Raban Shimon ben Gamliel says: On three things the world stands – upon justice and upon truth and upon peace. (Tractate Avot 1:18)

1. Appreciation of others’ kindness to us as a central Torah value
Our Sages tell us of the importance of acknowledging kindnesses performed by others from which we benefit. If we benefit from a kindness, we are obligated to acknowledge it. This kindness may be a meal provided at a time of need. It may be a sensitive word or gesture. A kindness may be the offer of a ride to some event. The form of the specific kindness is not relevant. Regardless, the recipient must acknowledge it.

Various mitzvot of the Torah are predicated upon this principle. The obligations to honor our parents and teachers are expressions of this principle. Also, it is notable that the obligation to acknowledge a received kindness is not impacted by whether the person performing the act had a selfish motive. We need not investigate the motives of our parents in having children in order to determine whether we are obligated to honor them. Every child has the obligation to revere one’s parents regardless of the purity of the parents’ motives for creating a family and for supporting and raising children.

2. Appreciation of others as a social catalyst
It is easy to comprehend the practical importance of this ethic. Our Sages observe that the world rests upon justice, truth, and peace. In other words, in order for a society to function it must be governed by justice. Also, peace and goodwill must exist among its members. Of course, economic and social interaction requires commitment to honesty. Peace and goodwill only exist among individuals who acknowledge one another’s kindnesses. The benefactor, whose kindnesses go unrecognized and unacknowledged, will sooner or later reconsider his benevolence.

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

3. Paroh’s forgetting Yosef leads to his denial of Hashem
However, the midrash on Parshat Shemot deals with this issue from a completely different and startling perspective. The Torah tells us that a new king arose in Egypt who did not know Yosef. Of course, this is a difficult statement to understand. How could this new king be unaware of Yosef’s rescue of Egypt from the ravages of famine? How could this new king not be aware of the decades of service and wise counsel that Yosef provided to his predecessor?
The Talmud responds that the passages should not be understood in a completely literal fashion. Instead, it is describing an attitude and manner of behavior. This new king conducted himself as if he did not know Yosef. Of course, he knew his nation’s recent history. He was aware of Yosef’s remarkable contribution to creating the Egypt he now ruled. However, the new king chose to ignore Yosef’s contribution. He chose to act as if Yosef had not existed.[1]

As the Torah’s narrative continues, it explains that this new king initiated a policy of severe oppression and genocide against Bnai Yisrael. Eventually, Hashem reveals Himself to Moshe and tells him that the time has come for Bnai Yisrael’s redemption. Hashem sends Moshe to Paroh with instructions to appeal to him to moderate the treatment of Bnai Yisrael. Moshe asks that Paroh allow Bnai Yisrael to travel into the wilderness and serve Hashem. Paroh responds that he will not grant this request. He asserts that he does not know of this Hashem to whom Moshe refers. The Sages comment that Paroh’s denial of Hashem is directly connected to his previous denial of Yosef’s contribution to Egypt.[2]

This seems to be a strange claim. Paroh was an idolator. He accepted the Egyptian gods but not Hashem. His response to Moshe is understandable. His religious perspective differed from Moshe’s. Why should he abandon his beliefs and replace them with Moshe’s? How was this denial of Hashem related to his prior denial of Yosef’s contribution to Egypt? The Sages’ response is profound. However, before it can be appreciated, other issues must be considered.

And he said to his people: Behold, the people of the Children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. Come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when there befalls us a war, they also join themselves with our enemies, and fight against us, and ascend from the land.
Therefore, they set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Paroh store-cities, Pitom and Raamses. (Sefer Shemot 1:9-11)

4. Paroh’s campaign against Bnai Yisrael and its motives
Earlier in the parasha, the Torah explains that this new king did not know Yosef. The Torah explains that this king slandered Bnai Yisrael, questioned their loyalty to Egypt, and persecuted them. Clearly, there is some connection between his denial of Yosef’s role and the persecution that this king initiated. What is the connection?

One possibility is that the persecution would have been impossible if the king recognized Yosef’s role in the salvation of Egypt. He would have been unable to justify the persecution of the family of Egypt’s rescuer.[3] However, there is another possible connection worth considering.

Perhaps, Paroh’s persecution of Bnai Yisrael was an expression of his determination to deny Yosef’s role in preserving Egypt. Paroh recognized that as long as Yosef’s family and descendants remained honored members of Egyptian society, they would serve as a reminder of Yosef’s enormous contribution to Egypt. If Paroh was to succeed in erasing the record of Yosef’s work, he needed to also eliminate this reminder. With this objective, he set out to remold his people’s perceptions of Bnai Yisrael. He began by recasting Bnai Yisrael as foreigners of questionable allegiance to Egypt. He then dehumanized them by gradually reducing them to servitude. He then took his final step in his strategy of erasing Bnai Yisrael. He initiated a policy of genocide.

This interpretation of the pesukim suggests that Paroh was obsessed with forgetting Yosef and eliminating the evidence of his accomplishments. This obsession went so far as to motivate an attempt to destroy any remnant of Yosef’s people. What was the basis of this obsession?

5. Paroh’s vendetta against Yosef and its motives
Paroh resented that the Egyptian people’s survival and prosperity was the result of the genius and abilities of a foreigner – Yosef. He regarded Yosef as an affront to the honor of the Egyptian people and an insult to the throne. The king of Egypt had been helpless to save his own people and instead had been compelled to rely upon the aid of a foreigner to rescue Egypt. This suggested to this new king the limits of his own power and capacity. He intensely needed to believe in his own mastery of his fate. However, as long as the memory of Yosef persisted, he was forced to acknowledge that even the king of Egypt is a limited mortal, unable to control his fate, and helpless to insure the welfare of his people. For a king who wished to be regarded as a deity,[4] this was an intolerable admission.

Now, the comments of our Sages can be considered. They explain that one’s failure to acknowledge the kindness of others inevitably leads to denial of Hashem’s kindness. They cite Paroh’s denial of Yosef’s kindness and Paroh’s subsequent denial of Hashem as evidence of their proposition.[5]

6. Self-pride prevents one from appreciating others
Based upon the above analysis of Paroh, the profound insight of the Sages can be understood clearly. What internal force renders a person insensitive to the kindnesses received from others? What prevents the recipients from feeling appreciation? Our Sages are suggesting that the cause is often an unwillingness to acknowledge one’s own limitations and frailty. A person who acknowledges all that others do for him, will come to realize that virtually every accomplishment is not a consequence of one’s personal resourcefulness, but the result of the combined contributions of many others.

We are each small, helpless individuals. All that we achieve is through our participation in a vast enterprise in which we are a beneficiary. The most powerful ruler depends upon others to feed, and cloth himself. He requires the assistance of others to educate and provide for his children and family. Alone, he cannot protect himself from an insignificant organism. A bacteria or germ may suddenly enter his system and without proper medication he will be incapacitated or even die. Each of us is completely dependent upon others. Our personal humility is a function of our recognition of our degree of dependence upon others. Recognition of our dependency is demonstrated and reinforced in our consciousness through our acknowledgment of all the benefits that are bestowed upon us by others.

If we do not acknowledge the endless kindnesses from which we benefit, then we quickly succumb to Paroh’s malady. We begin to delude ourselves. We exchange humility for self-pride. We begin to imagine that we are the masters of our fate. Once one succumbs to this malady, then there is no room in one’s consciousness for Hashem.

And Paroh said: Who is Hashem, that I should hearken to His voice to let Israel go? I know not Hashem, and moreover I will not let Israel go. (Sefer Shemot 5:2)

7. Paroh rejected the idea of a Creator and Sustainer of all existence
This point can be clearly understood by again considering the comments of the Sages. Paroh responded to Moshe that he did not know Hashem. Why did Moshe’s reference to Hashem evoke such a sharp response from Paroh? Paroh could have simply refused Moshe’s request that the people be permitted a brief interlude in which to serve Hashem. Why did Paroh feel compelled to deny Hashem?

By referring to the god of Bnai Yisrael as Hashem, Moshe communicated a message to Paroh regarding the nature of Bnai Yisrael’s perception of its god. The god of Bnai Yisrsel – Hashem – is not a local deity or a member of a community of deities. Moshe proposed the existence of a single G-d. This G-d is the cause of all existence. He is Creator and Sustainer. Everything exists solely by virtue of His will. All that we are and that we have is an expression of his boundless beneficence. For a king who fashioned himself as a potentate and virtual god, this was a completely untenable proposition.

If we succumb to the sedition of our own egos, then we too will inevitably alienate ourselves from Hashem. We may continue to imitate service to Him, to perform the expected religious rituals and devotions. However, in our hearts there will be no room for Him.

8. Creating a place for Hashem in our lives
In conclusion, we must be vigilant in our acknowledgment and appreciation of others. We must take care to take notice of the kindnesses we receive. This is crucial for the health and vibrancy of a community. By appreciating one another and acknowledging kindness, we encourage cooperation and mutual assistance. These are the basis of any community.

Moreover, by acknowledging and appreciating others we open our hearts to Hashem. We reinforce our cognizance of our own finitude and we build humility. Personal humility is the foundation upon which rests our appreciation of Hashem and our devotion to Him.

1. Mesechet Eruvin 53a.
2. Rav Menachem Mendel Kasher, Torah Shelymah vol 3, p 20.
3. Rabbaynu Yosef Bechor Shur, Commentary on Sefer Shemot 1:8.
4. Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 7:15.
5. Rav Menachem Mendel Kasher, Torah Shelymah vol 3, pp 20-21.