Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. — Exodus 1:8
This Torah portion for this week is Shemot, which means “names,” from Exodus 1:1–6:1, and the Haftorah is from Isaiah 27:6–28:13; 29:22–23.
When the 12 tribes first came to Egypt they were treated like royalty. They were embraced and showered with gifts all because their brother Joseph was Pharaoh’s right-hand man. Scripture tells us that after Joseph died, there was a new Pharaoh who hadn’t heard of Joseph. But how can that be?
The Jewish sages explain there is no way that the Pharaoh of Egypt didn’t know who Joseph was or what he had done for the Egyptian people. Egypt had been on the brink of destruction by the famine that had hit the land. The Egyptians would have been long gone if not for Joseph, who had warned them and guided them to save food in the abundant years for use in the lean ones. Joseph was a national hero! It was virtually impossible to live in Egypt and not know who Joseph was.
So how could the Pharaoh be so unkind to Joseph’s descendants?
The answer is found in the verse. To the new Pharaoh, “Joseph meant nothing.” Sure, he knew who Joseph was. But many years had gone by and the significance of Joseph’s actions had faded with the passage of time. While at first, the recent memory of what Joseph had done stirred emotions of gratefulness and appreciation, now he was just a man from the past. Joseph’s memory lived, but the gratitude of the Egyptians had died. Once their gratitude was gone, it was just a matter of time before the Egyptians turned upon these alien people living in their land.
Pharaoh and the Egyptians sound horribly unjust to forget all the good that Joseph had done for them, and then to repay his kindness with cruelty – but are we any much better? Can we say that our gratitude lasts forever?
Think about it. So many people have been kind to us. Someone gave birth to us, fed us, changed our diapers, and took care of our needs. Someone taught us how to read and write and gave us the confidence that we could succeed. Somewhere along the way, we needed a friend to lean on and someone was there for us. The list goes on and on. And then, of course, there is God who gives us everything!
But do we actively remember all of the kindness done for us? Have we properly thanked those who have helped us? Sometimes, we forget the good done to us, and we even repay kindness with anger or resentment. Judaism teaches that we must be grateful for the good done to us even if the same person also harms us. We can’t let their misdeeds cancel out their good ones!
So, let’s focus on gratitude today – toward our family, our friends, and most importantly, our God.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President