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The Torah says:

וַיָּ֥קָם מֶֽלֶךְ־חָדָ֖שׁ עַל־מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־יָדַ֖ע אֶת־יוֹסֵֽף׃ -- A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. [Exodus 1:8]

and continues with the new king's decision to enslave the Israelites.

But why the line "who did not know Joseph"? What does it add? The Talmud tells us: Some say it was really a new king, others say it was the same king [Sotah 11a; Eruvin 53a]. OK, but why is any of this relevant? What teachings are extracted from it? That sooner or later gentile powerholders will turn on their Jews?

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There are several answers provided:

Firstly, Rashi (which brings the Gemara you mention):

אשר לא ידע WHO KNEW NOT [JOSEPH] — he comported himself as though he did not know him (Sotah 11a).

This idea is also employed by the Sifsei Chachamim and Bechor Shor.

The Torah Temimah develops this further that he made out as if he forgot all the good that Yosef achieved in Egypt.

Sforno notes that it was to show a complete disconnect with what Yosef had accomplished during his reign, and that these Jews were of no connection to Yosef:

ויקם מלך חדש על מצרים אשר לא ידע את יוסף, although there can be no question that in the annals of Egyptian history the 80 year reign of Joseph and his legislation saving Egypt from the famine was duly recorded, as well as how he legislated that the whole land would belong to Pharaoh and the farmers would become his tenants, it did not occur to anyone to associate the Hebrews of his time with the family of Joseph who had been so highly esteemed. The idea that the present day Hebrews deserved special consideration on account of their illustrious forbears did not occur to anyone observing the way these Hebrews behaved at that time.

Da'as Zekeinim understands it as a parable through which Paroah was effectively belittling the Jews and by extension G-d:

Rabbi Yehudah ben Levi understands this line as a parable. There was someone who insulted the picture of the King. Having gotten away with that, the following week he insulted the king himself. The new king began by insulting the Jews, and when successful, proceeded to insult the G–d of the Jews.

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  • 1
    Still, what would be lost if that line is omitted? What do we really learn, that we need to know, from the quotes you present? Jan 10 at 21:53
  • If we didn't have this line we wouldn't be able to make sense of how in one instant all that Yosef achieved in the years of famine and throughout his tenure was all of sudden forgotten. True, we would know that a new/same king but different outlook emerged but we would be left questioning how they were ignorant of the legacy of Yosef left. By saying that he didn't know Yosef it shows that he was disregarding all that had been achieved, and by extension, ignoring the figurehead who represented the Jews.
    – Dov
    Jan 10 at 22:40
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    @MauriceMizrahi I don't understand this follow-up question. Dov has pretty clearly provided a lot of things we need to know.
    – MichoelR
    Jan 12 at 17:25
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It is relevant, on a pshat level, because he did not know Yosef. Had it just been a new king who did know Yosef, things might have been different. But since he didn't know Yosef, he acted in a certain manner towards the Jews, which was inappropriate based on their relationship to Yosef.

The commentators that provide alternative readings likely do so because it was inconceivable to them that this king didn't know Yosef, living so shortly after he had saved Egypt from a major famine and had been second in command in the country.

To solve this problem without diverting from the literal meaning of this phrase, Rav Hirsch (Shemot 1:8) suggests that the ruler was foreign, and therefore literally didn't know what had happened previously in Egypt.

(As for lessons, which the OP asked for: There are many lessons that can be learned from this, such as to make sure you are aware of all of the details in a story before acting in one way or another. Also, as Rav Hirsch notes there, the people of Egypt found themselves in a very complicated situation with a new hostile and foreign king, who was oppressing a nation that had been near and dear to the Egyptians in the years prior.)

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Everyone who knew Yosef, any time in his whole life, immediately said what Pharaoh said, "the spirit of G-d is in him".
No one who knew Yosef could ever hurt a Jew.

[See Seforno Shemos 1:7-8, brought above by Dov.]

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