Pharaoh Didn't Know Joseph And Perhaps We Forgot Him Too

The textual reference to forgetting Joseph raises questions about the extent to which oppression is linked to a minority group's involvement and commitment to the larger society.

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"Come, let us deal shrewdly with him." It should have been with them! R. Hama b. Hanina said, [Pharaoh meant,] Come and let us outwit the Savior of Israel. With what shall we afflict them? If we afflict them with fire, it is written: For behold, Adonai will come with fire, and it continues, for by fire will Adonai plead. [If we afflict them] with the sword, it is written: And by His sword with all flesh. But come, and let us afflict them with water, because the Holy One, blessed be God, has already sworn that He will not bring a flood upon the world, as it is said: For this is as the waters of Noah unto Me… (They were unaware, however, that God would not bring a flood upon the whole world but upon one people God would bring it; or alternatively, God would not bring [the flood] but they would go and fall into it. Thus it says: And the Egyptians fled toward it. (Talmud, Sotah 11a)

Writer's note: here the Talmud presupposes that the Egyptians knew Jewish tradition and God's decree not to bring a flood again. Thus they thought to exploit this opportunity, thinking they were safe from God's divine wrath. Instead, God turned the tables on them and punished them with the thing from which they thought they were safest. This may explain why the Egyptians felt safe to follow the Israelites into the parted Red Sea.

The root and beginning of this indescribable maltreatment was the supposed lack of rights of a foreigner… In Egypt, the cleverly calculated lowering of the rights of the Jews on the score of their being aliens (foreigners) came first; the harshness and the cruelty followed by itself, as it always does and will, when the basic idea of right has first been given wrong conception. (S. R. Hirsch, translator, "Exodus," The Pentateuch, L. Honig and Sons, Ltd., London, England, 1959)

Historian Barbara Tuchman identifies three "principles" regarding anti-Jewish sentiment: (1) "It is vain to expect logic--that is to say, a reasoned appreciation of enlightened self-interest" when it comes to anti-Semitism. (2) Appeasement is futile. "The rule of human behavior here is that yielding to an enemy's demands does not satisfy them but, by exhibiting a position of weakness, augments them. Its does not terminate hostility but excites it." (3) "Anti-Semitism is independent of its object. What Jews do or fail to do is not the determinant. The impetus comes out of the needs of the persecutors and a particular political climate." (Newsweek, February 3, 1975)

Your Guide

How has this pattern of "What have you done for me lately" anti-Semitism (described in Talmud, Sotah 11a) repeated itself throughout Jewish history?

How does the government-sponsored maltreatment of a particular group contribute to the development of a mob mentality? How does it encourage mistreatment of that group by others?

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Rabbi Daniel J. Moskovitz

Rabbi Dan Moskovitz is an Associate rabbi at Temple Judea in Tarzana, CA. He graduated with honors from the University of Judaism in Los Angeles with a degree in Political Science. Dan also has two master's degrees, one in Education and the other in Hebrew Letters from the Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion.