This week’s Torah portion is Sh’mot, Exodus 1:1 – 6:1.
How do we grant eternal life to people in Judaism?
We do it by keeping our loved ones alive through memory, stories, actions and saying Kaddish.
In my family, we tell stories of those who have passed away so often it’s as if they are still alive.
My children have never met their great-great-grandparents on my side, but Bubbe and Zeyde are alive to them because of all the stories I tell. It’s important because these stories are their spiritual and ethical inheritance. We remember them.
So what happened with Joseph? We read in Exodus 1:8: “A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” Why didn’t this new ruler remember him? Didn’t Joseph do enough for Egypt during his 80 years in government to deserve to be remembered? He saved the Egyptians from the famine and acted as a negotiator between Pharaoh and farmer/tenants.
The scholar Rashi, interprets this verse to mean that that Pharaoh acted as if he did not know about Joseph. Pharaoh conveniently pretended that he didn’t know or remember Joseph and therefore would not have to be beholden to his descendants, to his people.
The commentator Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno presents a different interpretation. He felt that Pharaoh really did remember a Joseph from the history books. However, he said that “… it did not occur to anyone to associate the Hebrews of his time with the family of Joseph who had been so highly esteemed.” So Joseph was remembered but his family affiliations were not. And even if they had been remembered, Sforno continues that “… the idea that the present day Hebrews deserved special consideration on account of their illustrious forbearers did not occur to anyone observing the way these Hebrews behaved at that time.” This last statement posits that even if Joseph had been remembered, no one would connect him with current day Hebrews because his people were not living up to his legacy.
What follows, then, is that Joseph may indeed have been remembered but he was not known.
What is the difference? To remember someone means to “to have or keep an image or idea in your mind of (something or someone from the past).” (Miriam-Webster). The Hebrew word for this type of remembering is zachor. The Hebrew word used in this verse is yada, to know. In certain situations, we can interpret yada to mean remember, as some will do in this verse.
But yada means so much more. It means to know someone intimately, as in a lover, or to know all the intimate relevant details about someone. Pharaoh and his court may have known of Joseph, may even have remembered him — but either as Rashi claimed, pretended that they didn’t know him, or as in the Sforno interpretation, didn’t know the intimate details of Joseph’s life. They didn’t know that he had been a Hebrew.
Joseph may not have been properly known to Pharaoh all those years later, but he was known to his people. He is still known to us today.
Perhaps one message from this verse is that not only must we continue to remember those who have gone before, but also we must do them the honor of continuing to live up to the standards that were set by them and by living a life worth being remembered and known for eternity.
Questions for discussion:
Can you think of anyone else in the Tanach who we learn just enough about to remember him or her, but whom we do not feel that we have enough information to truly know who he or she was?
What do you want people to remember and know you for after you are gone?
This appeared in Washington Jewish Week.