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The Lack of Recognition of Goodness: Pharaoh's Punishment for not Knowing Yosef

Updated: Jan 13, 2023

Ungratefulness: The Result of a Lack of Wisdom

In the Torah (Exodus 1:8), it is revealed that a new king came to power in the land, lacking knowledge of Yosef and his contributions. The ascension of this unfamiliar monarch marked the onset of tumultuous circumstances as he attempted to eliminate any recollection of Yosef's role in bringing prosperity to the region.

ויקם מלך־חדש על־מצרים אשר לא־ידע את־יוסף

A new king came into power over Egypt, who did not know Yosef.

The phrase "who did not know Yosef," which prompts questioning due to its unseemly application, appears in both the Targum Yonason and the Targum Yerushalmi, as demonstrated below:

וקם מליך חדת כמין שירויא על מצרים דלא חכים ית יוסף ולא הליך בנימוסוי

And there arose a new king than he who was formerly over Mitzraim; he was not wise with respect to Yosef and did not walk in his counsel.

The translation of "Knowing of Yosef" as "wisdom" or "being wise" is puzzling and warrants further examination. Typically, "Knowing" someone is translated as "recognition" or "awareness," as can be observed in the translation of the verse (Genesis 42:8). The Torah says Yosef recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. Here the Targum Yonason translates the word as recognition (ואשתמודע יוסף). It can be explained that there the brothers it was referring to visual recognition as they did not recognize Yosef with his beard. However, in this context, the reference is to recognizing Yosef's goodness; thus, a more accurate translation would be a deficiency in wisdom. Wisdom is crucial in recognizing goodness and being grateful, as the foolish, who do not comprehend and do not hold fast to good things, also fail to recognize goodness.

It is also explained in the Midrash (Pesikta Rabati, 12) that recognizing the good is synonymous with "understanding," stating:

"Rabbi Tanchuma in the name of Rabbi Eybo opened with the following: 'Do not be like a horse or a mule that does not understand, who must be curbed with bit and bridle, else they will not come near you (Psalms 32:9).' The Holy One, blessed be He, is saying to Israel: 'Israel, let there be an understanding among you, do not be like a horse that lacks understanding.' What does a horse do? Someone goes to put jewelry on it or give it food, and it tosses its head and resists. So does a mule. But you should not be like that, rather let there be an understanding among you so that when you enter the land, remember to do good to its inhabitants, etc. 'Do not hate an Egyptian, for you were strangers in his land' (Deuteronomy 23:8); whether they were good or bad, you lived among them for so many years."

Thus, the Holy One, blessed be He, is requesting that Israel have "understanding" to recognize goodness.

Recognizing the Good for Future Generations

It is stated at the beginning of the parashah (Exodus 1:6):

וימת יוסף וכל־אחיו וכל הדור ההוא:

And Joseph died, as did all his brothers and all that generation,

It becomes evident to the reader that the purpose of the text is to convey that not only Yosef and his brothers but all members of their generation have passed away. The intention of this is to direct the reader's attention towards the fact that Pharaoh had a responsibility to recognize the goodness of their descendants, even though Yosef and the members of that generation were no longer alive. His failure to do so demonstrates a deficiency in goodness.

Pharaoh's Killing of Jewish Children Through Ingratitude

One of Pharaoh's wicked decrees was every son that is born to the Hebrews shall be cast into the Nile as the Torah (Exodus 1:22) states,

ויצו פרעה לכל־עמו לאמר כל־הבן הילוד היארה תשליכהו וכל־הבת תחיון {פ}

Pharaoh then commanded all his people, saying, “Every boy who is born must be thrown into the river, but every girl shall be allowed to live.

It seems that Pharaoh was seeking to express his displeasure with Yosef, who had assisted the land through the famine. In response to this, Pharaoh proclaimed that the Nile, rather than Yosef, had rescued them from the famine. This declaration was an act of ingratitude towards Yosef, who had demonstrated kindness towards Pharaoh and his people. In an attempt to further convey his contempt for Yosef's goodness, Pharaoh issued an edict that the children of Yosef's people be killed by being cast into the Nile, the same river that appeared in the dreams Yosef had interpreted for Pharaoh. This was a cruel punishment intended to belittle the accomplishments of Yosef.

The Jewish Enslavement as a Punishment for the Sale of Yosef

We will bring here what is written in Sefer Shofra d'Yisroel (בלוז'וב, on the Torah page 91), that the event that occurred to the Israelite people, that a king "who did not know Yosef" arose over them and belittled his goodness, was a punishment for the sale of Yosef. That is to say, it is explained in Sefer HaChinnuch (Mitzvah 33) that the root of the mitzvah of honoring one's father and mother is the recognition of goodness:

"It is fitting for a person to recognize and repay the kindness to one who has done him good, and not to be brutish and ungrateful and lacking in goodness, etc. And to give it to his heart, that the father and mother are the reason for his existence in the world, and therefore it is truly fitting for him to do them all the honor and all the benefit that he can, for they brought him into the world, and also toil over him to the extent of their small toil."

And behold, by not recognizing Yosef, the tribes caused great pain to their father, who mourned for his son for many days, and this was like a fault in their lack of gratitude towards him. Therefore, their children were punished when Pharaoh arose over them, belittling the goodness of Yosef.

It is also noteworthy to mention that in Yosef's statement to his brothers, "And he has made me a father to Pharaoh" (Genesis 45:8), we see Yosef's position of authority and respect within Pharaoh's court.

ועתה לא־אתם שלחתם אתי הנה כי האלהים וישימני לאב לפרעה ולאדון לכל־ביתו ומשל בכל־ארץ מצרים

Now [then] it was not you that sent me here, but Elohim; and He has made me as a father to Pharaoh, and master of all his house, and ruler over all the land of Egypt.

The enslavement of the Israelites by Pharaoh, who had previously shown them kindness, was a grave act of ingratitude towards Yosef, who was like a father to Pharaoh. This enslavement was a measure-for-measure response to the sin of selling Yosef and was also a reflection of the difficulties that Yosef's brothers had inflicted upon their own father. It is evident that the cruelty shown towards Yosef by their brothers deeply hurt and distressed Yaakov.

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