The final four parshiot of the Book of Bereishit (Genesis) are devoted to the story of Joseph and his family ended up in Egypt. Joseph not only miraculously rose from lowly slave and then prison-inmate to a position of great power, but his wise leadership also saved Egypt, Canaan, and many other nations from starvation. Joseph also saved a particular individual that, one would think, would have the greatest significance. Pharaoh owed a huge debt of gratitude to Joseph, not only for Joseph’s enabling him to live through the famine but for strengthening Pharaoh’s supreme rule of Egypt (see Bereishit 47:13-27) and presumably of the entire region. In this context, a Talmudic interpretation of a verse about Pharaoh right in the beginning of the story of the Jewish people in Egypt is very surprising.
After relating that Joseph, his brothers, and the rest of their generation died, the Torah says that “a new king arose over Egypt, that didn’t know Joseph” (Shemot 1:8). Although one view understands this verse literally, a dissenting opinion understands it to mean that once Joseph died Pharaoh “made himself as if he didn’t know Joseph” even though he personally benefited from Joseph and nevertheless proceeded to persecute and enslave Joseph’s descendants and family. Whatever debt of gratitude that Pharaoh felt was apparently only skin deep and expired the moment Joseph died.
We are all like the “new” king in some way. In a most basic manifestation of this error, we can be ingrates towards others. We can forget great kindness that others have done for us, and act as if it has never happened. This character deficiency often painfully exposes itself in the way that children can treat their parents. The most pervasive and deleterious form of this error directly hits our relationship with the Almighty. “An ox knows its owner, and a donkey his master’s trough; Israel does not know, My people does not perceive” (Isaiah 1). If we are not able to recognize the grand gift of life itself and its grand Giver, if we cannot deeply appreciate the myriad joys of being a participant in our excitingly complex universe, then this basic failure can render us less intelligent than an ox or a donkey. Egypt’s “new” king seems like an almost absurdly obnoxious historical character; his legacy, however, marches on in our own backyard.