Parshat Shemot: And a new king arose

“And a new king arose that did not know Yosef.” (Shemot 1:8)

Sefer Shemot discusses the suffering of Bnai Yisrael in Egypt and their eventual redemption. Our passage introduces the events that led to the enslavement of Bnai Yisrael. The Torah tells us that a new king arose over Egypt. This king did not know Yosef. He was not familiar with Yosef’s contribution to the salvation of Egypt from famine and to the creation of its great empire. The apparent message of the passage is that this king did not feel indebted to Yosef, his family, or Yosef’s descendants. Any favor that previous rulers had shown towards Bnai Yisrael was replaced by antipathy and prejudice.

Rashi comments that Rav and Shmuel suggest alternative interpretations of our passage. Rav explains that this king was literally “new.” Shmuel disagrees. He suggests that the king was new in his conduct. He put in place new policies – specifically towards Bnai Yisrael.[1]

Both the interpretation of Rav and the alternative offered by Shmuel present problems. Rav explains that he understands the passage in a literal sense. The simple meaning of the passage is that a new king occupied the throne. However, there is a problem with this interpretation. The passage contains an extra word! There is no reason to refer to the king as “new.” The passage could merely have stated that a king arose who did not know Yosef. It would be obvious from this statement that he was new. Only a new king could be ignorant or unappreciative of Yosef’s contribution to Egypt.

Shmuel’s interpretation provides an explanation of this seemingly superfluous term. The passage refers to the king as “new” because he is only new in his conduct and behavior. But, Shmuel’s interpretation ignores the simple meaning of the passage. It seems that Shmuel is asking the reader to interpret the passage in a manner that is completely inconsistent with its obvious and clearly stated meaning.

Gur Aryeh and others respond that Rav and Shmuel are not arguing over the actual historical event. They both accept that simple meaning of the passage. The “new” king was a newly appointed monarch. However, both are bothered by the term “new.” Why is this term included in the passage? If a king arose who did not know Yosef, obviously he was new! By referring to this monarch as “new,” the Torah is communicating a message about him. Rav and Shmuel differ on the message.

In order to understand Gur Aryeh’s explanation of the dispute between Rav and Shmuel, we must consider our passage more carefully. Although our passage is short, it communicates three points: First, the passage tells us that a king arose. Second, the passage relates that the king was – in some sense – new. Third, the passage tells us that this king was not familiar with Yosef. Obviously, these three points are presented as elements of a single passage because they are related. However, what is the precise nature of the relationship?

Before we attempt to understand the relationship between the three elements of the passage, let us identify the fundamental unifying message of the passage. Then, we can consider the relationship between the various elements within the context of the overall message.

The basic message seems obvious: Bnai Yisrael entered Egypt as a favored, privileged minority. In a relatively short span of time they lost their privileged status and became persecuted, enslaved, and eventually, subjected to genocide. The Torah explains how this shocking transformation occurred. The Torah tells us that the first step towards this transformation was somehow related to a change in the ruler of Egypt.

Now, let us reconsider the three elements of the passage. There are two possible understandings of the structure of the passage: The first option is that the first portion of the passage explains the second. A king arose. This king was “new.” Because he was new, he did not know Yosef. In other words, he was not bound to the policies and behaviors of his predecessor towards Yosef’s people. This is Rav’s understanding of the passage.

However, the pasuk can be understood differently. It is possible that the second portion of the passage explains the first. The first portion of the passage tells us that a king arose and that this king was – in some sense – new. The second portion of the passage explains the nature of the king’s novelty. He broke from the policies of his predecessors in his treatment of Yosef’s family. This is Shmuel’s understanding of the passage.

In other words, both Rav and Shmuel agree that a king arose and that his attitude towards Bnai Yisrael was very different from his predecessor. However, they differ on the reason behind this change in attitude. Rav argues that this king’s rise to the thrown represented a new era and a break with the past. He was not bound to the policies and practices of his predecessors. He implemented his own policies.

Gur Aryeh suggests that Rav seems to be describing a deposing of the former monarch and his dynasty rather than the succession of a monarch within a dynasty. A monarch who continues the dynasty of his predecessors is committed to implementing his predecessors’ policies and basic outlook. However, when a king is deposed and his dynasty is replaced, the new ruler owes no loyalty to the policies of the past. Instead, he may be tempted to distinguish himself from the previous rulers of the overthrown dynasty. He does this by breaking with the past and establishing a new – perhaps radically new – path. According to Rav, this king’s attitudes towards Bnai Yisrael were a consequence of his disavowal of the past and his need to strike out on a new path that would be uniquely his.

Shmuel seems to describe a king who continues the rule of an established dynasty. In general, he is devoted and loyal to the status quo. However, this king was “new” in a single, important respect: He initiated a new set of policies towards Bnai Yisrael.

In short, Gur Aryeh suggests that Rav and Shmuel agree that a king arose who veered drastically from pervious polices towards Bnai Yisrael. Yet, they disagree on the reason for this sudden change of course. Rav argues that the change was occasioned by political upheaval. A king arose who was completely new and disassociated from the policies of the previous king. Shmuel suggests that this ruler succeeded his predecessor in a normal political transition – without chaos or upheaval. He had no reason to not continue the policies of his predecessors. Nonetheless, in one area – his treatment of Bnai Yisrael – he differed drastically from the kings who preceded him.[2]

Let us consider Rav and Shmuel’s positions more carefully. According to Rav, it may not be meaningful to consider the causes or roots of the new king’s hatred or persecution of Bnai Yisrael. This king had no commitment to past policies. He represented political change. It is not surprising that this ruler would succumb to simple xenophobia and prejudice towards a privileged minority. Furthermore, Bnai Yisrael may have served as a convenient scapegoat to be blamed for the inevitable setbacks and failures that accompany political upheaval.

However, according to Shmuel, this new king, in most respects, was devoted to established traditions, mores and values. Why in one area did he depart from tradition? Why persecute Bnai Yisrael?

It seems reasonable to look for an explanation in the immediately preceding chapters of the Chumash. The closing chapters of Sefer Beresheit deal with the final years of Yaakov’s life. Yaakov asks Yosef to bury him in the land of Canaan. Yosef agrees, but Yaakov is not satisfied. He asks that Yosef pledge himself with a vow and Yosef complies. Nachmanides is concerned with Yaakov’s demand that Yosef provide a vow. It is unimaginable that Yaakov would not trust Yosef! Why was his solemn commitment not adequate? Why did Yaakov demand a vow? However, Nachmanides notes that a subsequent event provides the explanation of Yaakov’s behavior.

Yaakov dies and Yosef must now fulfill the pledge he made to his father. Yosef asks Paroh for his permission to leave Egypt and bury his father in Canaan. He tells Paroh that he is bound by a vow. Paroh allows Yosef to travel to Canaan. But Paroh also indicates that the vow is a factor in his decision; he is not willing to require that Yosef violate a vow made to his father. Apparently, Yaakov foresaw that Paroh would resist Yosef’s request. Therefore, Yaakov did not require a vow from Yosef because he did not fully trust his son. Yaakov demanded that a vow because he recognized that this vow would help overcome Paroh’s resistance. Yosef understood his father’s design. He agreed with his father’s assessment and in petitioning Paroh, he noted that he was bound by a vow to fulfill his father’s wishes.

However, Nachmainides acknowledges that his interpretation raises an obvious question: Yaakov assumed Paroh would resist his wishes to be buried in Canaan by Yosef. Yosef agreed with this assessment. Both seem to have foreseen some obvious issue that would incite Paroh to refuse Yosef’s request. What was this issue? Nachmanides suggests two possibilities. However, let us focus on the first of these responses. Nachmanides suggests that Paroh might not have had any objection to Yaakov’s burial in Canaan. However, Yaakov wished Yosef to take charge of the burial and personally execute his wishes. Yaakov and Yosef predicted that Paroh might object to Yosef’s leaving Egypt to travel to Canaan and would instead insist that Yosef charge his brothers with this mission.[3]

Nachmanides’ explanation seems incomplete. He tells us that Yaakov and Yosef correctly anticipated that Paroh would resist consenting to Yosef leaving Egypt and traveling to Canaan. However, he does not explain the reason Paroh would resist this reasonable request. Let us consider the obvious possibilities.

Perhaps Paroh was afraid Yosef would not return. He relied on Yosef’s council and administrative skills. He could not take the chance that Yosef might abandon him. Yet, this is not a reasonable explanation: When Yosef, his brothers, and a delegation of Egyptian dignitaries traveled to Canaan to bury Yaakov, Yosef and his brothers did not take their possessions and were not accompanied by their young children. Certainly, Paroh had more than an adequate number of hostages to assure Yosef’s return.

Perhaps Paroh was concerned that Yosef’s return to Canaan would inspire in him a desire to return to his ancestral home. He would return to collect his family and belongings and would then lobby Paroh to allow him and his family to return to their homeland. Of course, Paroh could resist granting Yosef’s wishes. But he would risk losing Yosef’s full support and assistance. The difficulty with this explanation is that Paroh even resisted the removal of Yosef’s body from Egypt.[4] This seems to indicate that Paroh was not merely guided by the practical need to retain Yosef’s services. He did not want Yosef to be associated with Canaan – not in life or even death!

It is not that difficult to imagine Paroh’s concern. Yosef had tremendous authority. In practical terms, he was the actual ruler. In order to hold his position, Yosef was required to speak, dress, and generally conduct himself as an Egyptian. Yosef’s imitation of an Egyptian was compelling enough to convince his brothers. Why was this masquerade required? Apparently, the Egyptians preferred to think of Yosef as one of their own people. They were not eager to acknowledge that they were ruled by a foreigner – one whose true allegiance was to a different homeland!

Yosef’s masquerade as an Egyptian – or, at least a naturalized citizen – was successful until his family came to Egypt. The emergence of his family must have created some controversy. But, Yosef could reasonably argue that his entire family had transferred its allegiance to Egypt. The death of Yaakov and Yosef’s burial of his father in Canaan belied any claim of uncompromised loyalty to Egypt. Egypt was reminded of Yosef’s roots and his connection with a foreign homeland.

Let us return to our question on Shmuel’s opinion: What brought about the regime’s change in attitude towards Bnai Yisrael? What motivated the regime to deny and renounce Yosef’s contribution to Egypt? Perhaps, Yosef’s emergence as an alien from a foreign homeland was the root cause of this change. As long as Yosef was regarded as an Egyptian, the Egyptians could accept his leadership. But once events revealed to them that Yosef’s allegiance was complicated and equivocal, the Egyptians came to resent him and their dependence on the foreigner. It is not surprising that this resentment led to eventual denial of Yosef’s contribution to Egypt.

[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 1:8.

[2] Rav Yehuda Loew of Prague (Maharal), Gur Aryeh Commentary on Sefer Shemot 1:8.

[3] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 47:31.

[4] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 13:19.