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A Tale of Two Pharaohs

01/20/2017 01:47:23 AM


I suspect that this Shabbat many a rabbi's sermon will hinge on the phrase from this week's Torah portion: "There arose a new King who did not know Joseph."  Some of my colleagues and friends will be marching in protests against President Trump's administration, fearful of changes in specific policies like healthcare or women's rights, or even the tone of our civil society or the very fabric of our government. Others might speak with hope for positive change for Israel, foreign policy or the economy.   Still others will remain silent, fearful of arising the ire of an increasingly divided Jewish community.
As I try to understand what today means for us as Jews, I read the verses, and I see that Genesis and Exodus tell the story of two different Pharaohs.
The Pharaoh of Genesis implements wise, policies, saving the Egyptians, and the world, from starvation. There are long-lasting changes to the social structure . All of this is only possible because he chooses a Jewish advisor, Joseph, as his trusted second in command. He offers the Jews a privileged position in Egypt.
The Pharaoh of Exodus forgets Joseph's contributions and seeks a self-aggrandizing path that leads to destruction for Egypt. His reign begins by allowing poisonous words, and villainization of the Jews and others, escalates with threats, culminates with slavery and worse.   Righteous women, like Moses' mother and sister, the Hebrew midwives, and even Pharaoh's own daughter, engage in passive resistance to his plans and policies and ultimately thwart them, but only at great cost.
Our country, and our Jewish community, are divided in their interpretation of  which new king we are getting. There are strong disagreements regarding the proposed policies of the incoming administration.  I will not address them here.  

The answer is also not clear as we look at the narrow interests of our own Jewish community: I see aspects of the Pharaoh of Genesis, who elevated the Israelites. We hear that the president's Jewish daughter consulted with rabbis as to whether it was permitted to ride to the inaugural ball on Shabbat. On the other hand, I must see echoes of the Pharaoh of Exodus as well among the incoming administration and its supporters. Harmful words and opinions about Jews are more visible than they have been in some time, with over 30 JCC's receiving bomb threats in the last two weeks.
In the verses immediately before the new Pharaoh arises, we are given a complete list of all of the sons of Jacob, who travel to Egypt together. Later in the book of Exodus (chapter 6) , we are given a genealogy which trails off partway through- only some tribes are included. Whichever new Pharaoh we are getting, let us make sure the next four years do not leave us with a community that is weakened and divided against itself.

Each week we pray for the success of our country's government, no matter who leads it. Whether you believe that we are getting the Pharaoh of Genesis, or of Exodus, I hope you agree that our country is in need of prayer and divine guidance and protection.  I pray that our elected leaders, and those who disagree and dissent from them, are  able to find guidance in God's wisdom, and are able to carry forth their disagreements not for the sake of glory or gain, but for the sake of heaven and the greater good. 

With best wishes for a Shabbat Shalom
     Rabbi Joshua Heller

Tue, December 5 2023 22 Kislev 5784