January 4th, 2019

Last Shabbat we began reading from the Book of Exodus (Shemot), the second of the five books of the Torah.  Exodus is the formative book of our Jewish identity, detailing the Israelites’ journey from slavery to freedom and the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.

In the first parasha (portion) we are told that a new ruler arose in Egypt “who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8).  The Hebrew word for “know” is “yadah” – and our commentators reveal that this word is used “over twenty times in the first fourteen chapters” of Exodus (The JPS Torah Commentary, Exodus 1:8, page 5). This is important because the word “yadah” has many connotations.  The commentary notes:
In the biblical conception, knowledge is not essentially or even primarily rooted in the intellect and mental activity.  Rather, it is more experiential and is embedded in the emotions, so that it may encompass such qualities as contact, intimacy, concern, relatedness, and mutuality. Conversely, not to know is synonymous with dissociation, indifference, alienation, and estrangement; it culminates in callous disregard for another’s humanity (Ibid).

Therefore, when the text says that the new ruler did not “know” Joseph, the implication is far reaching and devastating.  I believe he chose not to know Joseph because that enabled him to create a distance between himself and Joseph’s descendants, the Israelites.  From there, it is not a far leap to the indifference and disregard that leads to the Israelite enslavement.

Perhaps this portion foreshadows a later encounter between Moses and Pharaoh, when “yadah” we find a powerful reminder of our obligation to pursue knowledge in order that we do not become callous and indifferent to the suffering of others, rather we should get to know the “other” and in so doing, recognize our common humanity.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Marcy Gelb Delbick


Shalom St. Croix!