Pharaoh Didn't Know Joseph And Perhaps We Forgot Him Too

The textual reference to forgetting Joseph raises questions about the extent to which oppression is linked to a minority group's involvement and commitment to the larger society.

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Provided by the Union for Reform Judaism, the central body of Reform Judaism in North America.

  • The new king of Egypt makes slaves of the Hebrews and orders their male children to be drowned in the Nile River. (1:1-22)

  • A Levite woman places her son, Moses, in a basket on the Nile, where he is found by the daughter of Pharaoh and raised in Pharaoh's house. (2:1-10)

  • Moses flees to Midian after killing an Egyptian. (2:11-15)

  • Moses marries the priest of Midian's daughter, Zipporah. They have a son named Gershom. (2:16-22)

  • God calls Moses from a burning bush and commissions him to free the Israelites from Egypt. (3:1-4:17)

  • Moses and Aaron request permission from Pharaoh for the Israelites to celebrate a festival in the wilderness. Pharaoh refuses and makes life even harder for the Israelites. (5:1-23)

Focal Point

A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, "Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war, they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground." So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor; and they built garrison cities for Pharaoh: Pithom and Raamses. But the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and spread out, so that the [Egyptians] came to dread the Israelites. (Exodus 1:8-12)

Your Guide

Does the text mean to suggest that it was the memory of Joseph that had kept the Israelites safe from oppression in Egypt? In other words, was the hatred always there just below the surface, waiting for the opportunity to arise?

How were the Egyptian people complicit in Pharaoh's evil scheme? Why did all the people of Egypt go along with it?

At what point does a stranger or immigrant become an inclusive member of society, no longer seen as an outsider?

What is it about the historical experience of the Jewish people that would cause them to harden and become resilient in the face of oppression?

By the Way…

"A new king arose over Egypt..." Rab and Samuel [differ in their interpretation]. One said that he was really new, while the other said that his decrees were made new. He who said that he was really new did so because it is written, "new;" and he who said that his decrees were made new did so because it is not stated that [the former king] died and he reigned [in his stead]. "Who did not know Joseph:" He was like one who did not know [Joseph] at all. (Talmud, Sotah 11a)

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Rabbi Daniel J. Moskovitz

Rabbi Dan Moskovitz is an Associate rabbi at Temple Judea in Tarzana, CA. He graduated with honors from the University of Judaism in Los Angeles with a degree in Political Science. Dan also has two master's degrees, one in Education and the other in Hebrew Letters from the Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion.