Sh’mot: Sense of Self

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Sh’mot

“The total number of persons that were of Jacob’s issue came to seventy, Yosef being already in Egypt. . . . “
(Sh’mot/ Exodus 1:5)

“A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Yosef.” (1:8)

Greetings!

This week we begin a new book of the Torah, Sh’mot- literally, “names,” from the recounting of the names of the sons of Yaakov in the first verse. Verse five seems fairly straightforward: the total count of Yaakov’s children and their families was seventy when they came down to Egypt to live under Yosef’s protection. Our friend Rashi points out that we don’t really need to be told that “Yosef was already in Egypt,” because Yosef and his family were included in the total of seventy, and besides, everybody already knows that Yosef was in Egypt, so why bring it up?

Good question!

Rashi’s answer is subtle: the verse mentions Yosef among the seventy descendants of Yaakov and again as “in Egypt” because it’s making the point that it was the same Yosef, as it were, who tended Yaakov’s sheep as a boy and then became Prime Minister of the great empire, all the while being steadfast in his goodness.

Now, we might have a discussion about exactly how admirable Yosef was over the years, but the traditional rabbinic understanding is that he is Yosef HaTzadik, Yosef the righteous one, so I think Rashi is saying that it’s especially praiseworthy that he retained this moral orientation while reaching the highest levels of power and status. According to Rashi’s interpretation, Yosef had an inner life, a core identity or grounding in moral principles that gave him a durable sense of self, whether he was a brash young boy or a commander of nations.

Now, let’s compare this to the next verse quoted at the top, about Pharaoh, who “did not know Yosef.” Rashi now brings a rabbinic debate about whether this was really a new king, or just a king who made new and unexpected decrees. In either case, Rashi doesn’t believe that the Pharaoh didn’t know who Yosef was. Rather, he acted as if he didn’t know who Yosef was. In other words, the Pharaoh, whether old or new, chose to disregard the legacy of the man who saved Egypt.

Comparing these two interpretations, perhaps Rashi is trying to make a larger point about the choices that people face: one can let the external circumstances of life draw you one way or another, or one can maintain a steadfast set of internal orientations, which in turn determine how one reacts to events. Are you like Pharaoh, choosing to forget that which you may have known just recently, as long as it’s tactically advantageous, or are you like Yosef, who (according to this reading) retained his moral compass even in a foreign land, even under extreme duress, and even when there was no power on earth who could hold him accountable for transgressions?

Pharaoh knew darn well who Yosef was; but in the Pharaoh world of instrumental values, loyalty meant nothing if power was at stake, so forgetting was easy. Yosef, on the other hand, chose to forgive when nobody could have stopped him from taking vengeance; he thought of others, and thought of the person he wished to be. That’s hard, but that’s the challenge of life itself: to know and nurture and realize the spirit within, so that we become who we truly are, children of Israel and inheritors of Torah.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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