The Power of We by Leiby Deutsch


There is a famous Rashi at the beginning of Parashat Shemot that attempts to resolve an issue in the text of the Torah. Rashi’s solution, however, seems to raise more questions than it answers. The beginning of the Parashah picks up from Yosef’s death at the end of Sefer BeReishit, with a new king that rises to power over Egypt. The Pasuk describes him as someone who, “Lo Yada Et Yosef,” “Did not know Yosef” (Shemot 1:8). Is it really possible that the new Par’oh of Egypt took over without any knowledge of those who ruled before him? Rashi (ad loc. s.v. Asher Lo Yada) resolves the question by explaining that Par’oh pretended not to know Yosef and refused to acknowledge him.

Rashi’s answer to this question seems to be inconsistent with the social trends of ancient civilizations and world powers. Egypt was a world power and its citizens were nationalists and prideful people who showed the rest of the world their might and wealth. They conquered the ancient world, adorned themselves and their tombs with gems and expensive materials, and built the famous Egyptian pyramids. Most Egyptians were farmers who would have had no income if anything happened to their crops. When Yosef came to power, Egypt was on the verge of economic ruin due to the seven-year drought that was about to occur, but Yosef found a way to avoid an economic disaster. Why wouldn’t the Par’ohs thereafter boast about the fact that they managed to avert such a disaster because of Yosef’s genius? Blocking Yosef from history is also blocking his accomplishments from those of the Egyptians. What would motivate the new Par’oh to hide such accomplishments?

The study of an ancient civilization, is the study of the effects and significance of the civilization as a whole, as well as the significance and accomplishments of each of the major rulers of that civilization. As soon as one begins to examine the actual feats themselves, they are linked necessarily, and in most instances exclusively, to a ruler. An accomplishment is not the accomplishment of the people, rather of the ruler. As a result, a new ruler will tend to allow the enormity of a feat accomplished by his predecessor to fall to the wayside so that he can accomplish even more and not have to be in the shadows of the ruler before him. Why did the new king of Egypt ignore the accomplishments of Yosef? He had bigger and better plans for Egypt. He planned on making Bnei Yisrael become integral in the development of Egypt’s magnificence by means of servitude.

Why, then, should we remember what Yosef did? Yosef was important in bringing Ya’akov and his sons to Egypt, but his accomplishments did not improve the quality of life of Jewish servitude in Mitzrayim in the slightest! He died many years prior to the forced slavery, in an era before the Avdut of the Jewish people. Yosef stopped affecting the Jewish people years earlier! Servitude was a completely new era in Jewish history. What would be the purpose of remembering this terrible past of servitude, especially now, over three thousand years later?

To answer such a question, another must be raised. Rabbeinu Bachaya asks, what is the difference between the first Pasuk of Sefer Shemot, which states, “VeEileh Shemot Bnei Yisrael HaBa’im Mitzrayimah, Et Ya’akov, Ish UVeito Ba’u,” “And these were the names of the children of Israel that came to Egypt with Ya’akov, every man and his household came” (Shemot 1:1), and a Pasuk in Parashat VaYechi: “VeEileh Shemot Bnei Yisrael HaBa’im Mitzrayimah, Ya’akov UVanav,” “And these are the names of the children of Israel that came to Egypt, Ya’akov and his sons…” (BeReishit 46:8). Rav Hirsch’s commentary on these Pesukim provides an answer. In Sefer BeReishit, Ya’akov’s sons are described with the words, “Ya’akov and his sons,” as multiple entities. The children of Ya’akov were part of a family, but existed as a confederacy of the various Shevatim that were comprised of the offspring of the brothers. In Sefer Shemot, the sons are referred to as, “every man and his household,” one house with all of the brothers together as one unit.

In ancient civilizations, only someone who succeeded celebrated his success. When the world proceeded to move on, the success, its emphasis, and its celebration became less important. It became all but ignored when others sought to outdo what was previously accomplished. The Torah denies the validity of such a philosophy.

Yosef was and always will be part of Klal Yisrael. His success was celebrated with his brothers. The message of “Ish UVeito Ba’u” is that all of Klal Yisrael, horizontally as a current population spread across the globe, and vertically throughout the thousands of generations since the beginning, all celebrate and join together in the recognition and celebration of all successes. Jews never celebrate alone, which facilitates the celebration of successes both past and current to never be temporary and fleeting. They have lasted generations and will continue to last for generations to come.

What is the difference between Shabbat, which is associated with Oneg, enjoyment and pleasure, and Yom Tov, which is associated with Simchah, happiness? Oneg can be experienced even in isolation with even the slightest novelties and delights; however, since it is able to be felt so frequently and so easily, it does not last very long. Simchah, in its truest form, is able to be experienced only in the presence of others since only they are able to enhance and contribute to happiness that to a degree that is outside of the capabilities of oneself. Sometimes, it is sufficient to experience mere pleasure and enjoyment, but for one to have a chance at a complete life, he also has to experience genuine happiness so that he can bond and unify with those around him as well.

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