Parashat Shemot is often expanded with the acronym Shenayim Mikra VeEchad Targum, referring to the practice of studying the Torah text twice and a translation, such as Onkelos’, once. There is no better way to begin a new Sefer than by reading the Parashah with Targum Onkelos. Shemot begins with a changing of the cast, the brothers passing and a new generation arising. All seems calm until a new Par’oh assumes power. The Pasuk states, “VaYakom Melech Chadash Al Mitzrayim Asher Lo Yada Et Yosef,” “A new king arose upon Egypt who did not know Yosef” (Shemot 1:8). Onkelos (ad loc.), typically a stickler for the exact meaning of the text, translates the words “Asher Lo Yada Et Yosef” as “DeLo Mekayeim Gezeirat Yosef,” meaning, “who did not uphold the decree of Yosef.” What decree does this refer to, and how does it trigger the subsequent subjugation of Bnei Yisrael?
We know that Yosef’s word is law from when Par’oh appoints him as viceroy. Targum Yonatan (BeReishit 41:40) translates the words “VeAl Picha Yishak Kol Ami” as “VeAl Gezeirat Meimar Pumach Yitzinun Kol Ami,” meaning, “On the decree of the utterance of your mouth my nation will be sustained.” What does Yosef decree, which, if ignored, can lead to lack of sustenance and possibly slavery?
The first law Yosef passes is that everyone in Egypt will give a fifth of his produce as taxes, to be stored for the famine. However, that cannot be the decree to which Onkelos is referring, because abolishing that decree would simply means less funds for Par’oh, not nearly enough of a reason to enslave the entire Jewish people!
Yosef’s next law is enacted at the end of Parashat VaYigash (BeReishit 47:23-26). After Yosef gains control of all of the land in Egypt, he gives it back to the people in exchange for their giving a 20% tax to Par’oh. This may anger the populace, but does not trigger a revolt; they simply thank Yosef for saving them. Following the law’s enactment, the Torah states that the law remains intact “until today,” presumably referring to the time of Yetzi’at Mitzrayim.
Another one of Yosef’s positions regards Bnei Yisrael’s role in Egypt. Soon after greeting his family, Yosef suggests that Bnei Yisrael stay separate from the Egyptians and reside in Goshen. He sends most of the family there and brings Ya’akov and five others as a delegation to Par’oh. Yosef has a plan – he tells his brothers to present themselves as shepherds who want to live in Goshen, an isolated location. Upon arriving before Par’oh at the beginning of Perek 47, Yosef informs Par’oh that Ya’akov and his children are currently residing in Goshen. Everything seems to proceeding going according to plan: Par’oh asks the expected question and the brothers give their coached answer. Then, Par’oh delivers his verdict: Ya’akov and his family can live in Goshen, but if there are any among them who are capable men, they will be his “Sarei Mikneh,” literally, “officers of sheep” (47:6).
This last statement is what dooms Bnei Yisrael. The phrase “Sarei Mikneh” might simply mean “shepherds.” However, it is possible that the phrase “officers of sheep” is a play on words. The capable brothers will be generals for Par’oh’s “sheep,” referring to his sheepish soldiers. Par’oh hereby acknowledges Bnei Yisrael’s military potential, thus threatening their ability to live isolated and quiet lives. Par’oh would like to militarize them, to not leave them alone. Par’oh only makes a suggestion, but it has a major impact on the future.
Whether or not Par’oh decides to stick by Yosef’s preference and isolate Bnei Yisrael or not, Bnei Yisrael are now in trouble, as Par’oh changes the policy. Yosef recommended complete isolation for Bnei Yisrael in Goshen. Par’oh stipulated that if there are warriors amongst them, they should be utilized. Perhaps some of Bnei Yisrael at first rise to join the Egyptian army, but nothing comes of these whims as long as Yosef retains power.
Once Yosef’s generation passes on, though, the situation drastically changes. A new king arises in Egypt who does not know Yosef. This king knows there is military might amongst the Jews, who are no longer a family but an “Am,” a nation. He does not have Yosef’s assurances that there will be peace from the Jews; he sees only unharnessed military potential. Whether this king is from a new dynasty and afraid they will side against him or simply paranoid that this nation is too big of a risk, he knows that Bnei Yisrael have to be dealt with. This new king doesn’t leave them be – he takes decisive action. Since they aren’t joining his army, his subjugates them. Bnei Yisrael are unable to remain isolated and instead become slaves. Yosef’s final master plan to keep the Jews safe has failed.
Yosef wants Bnei Yisrael to remain separate and Par’oh wants to arm them. While they manage to initially stay free of Par’oh’s grasp, Bnei Yisrael are now on the radar, and permanent neutrality is untenable. Yosef’s political brilliance partially saves Bnei Yisrael from the Egyptians, but Par’oh cracks the foundation and Bnei Yisrael will not escape Egypt unscathed. As Onkelos describes so succinctly and as we now understand, the many years of slavery that we witness in this week’s Parashah ultimately occur because of one simple decree going wrong.