At the beginning of this week’s parshah, we read that “a new king arose in Egypt.” Rashi explains that some say it was literally a new king, while others say he changed his policies. In either case, Egypt was transformed from a country where the ruling authorities respected and treated us well to a land ruled by the first classic antisemite. Pharaoh was the first to incite his population by claiming the Jews were all powerful and disloyal.
The impetus for the about-face in policy was that the new ruler “did not know Joseph.” Rashi explains that he pretended not to know. For some insight into how revisionist history led to such a dramatic change, we need to go back two weeks to Parshas VaYigash.
During the years of plenty, Joseph gathered the produce in storehouses. When the famine came, Joseph sold the food. When he had amassed all of the money, he sold food for the people’s livestock. After a year, the people came to Joseph and offered their land and their freedom in exchange for food. Egypt was saved from famine and the Egyptian monarchy had gained control of all the sources of wealth and power in the kingdom, except for the lands of the priests. At the same time, Joseph’s brothers were tending sheep on some of the best lands in Egypt, while Joseph amply provided for them.
During the years of the famine, the Egyptian people praised Joseph for saving their lives. They gladly accepted their new role as serfs of the king as the price of survival. But it is not difficult to see how that view would have changed over time. Joseph could be portrayed as the man who took advantage of a crisis to enrich himself and his family and made them all wards of the state. The image of Joseph changed from the man who saved Egypt to the man who transformed Egypt into a totalitarian, communist regime.
People who were once wealthy and powerful were reduced to being serfs of the king. People who aspired to something more were living in overcrowded cities with little or no hope for advancement. Discontent would have been rampant.
Pharaoh responded like many tyrants over the years by channeling the people’s anger in another direction. It was Joseph and the Jews who took your money, your livestock, and your lands. It was Joseph and the Jews who reduced you to serfdom while amassing power for themselves.
Pharaoh was the first, but far from the last, tyrant to consolidate power by inciting the masses against the Jews with devastating results.
There are a number of lessons we can learn from this.
Events can be seen in different ways by different people at different times. We may act with the best of intentions, but others may see it differently. We need to consider how our action will be seen by others and consider the possible long-range repercussions.
Revisionist history usually has a political agenda. Those who seek to change the way we view the past are really trying to shape the way we will act in the present and the future.
Beware of consolidating power in any individual or institution.
Our wealth and power and contributions to a country will not save us. When the time comes, they can easily be used against us.
Do not put complete trust in any individual. Those who seem like our best friends today can turn against us overnight.
Beware of those who incite the masses against any group of people.
We as American Jews should be thankful for what our country has done for us and proud of what we have done for our country. But we need to realize that it won’t last forever. There is only one G-d who can save us and sustain us, and only one place that is the homeland of the Jewish people.