The beginning of the Hebrew enslavement in Egypt, as recounted in the opening chapters of the Book of Exodus, was occasioned by the ascension to the throne of "a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph."
The meaning of this verse was debated by Jewish sages in third-century Babylonia.
According to one opinion, the verse is to be accepted at face value as indicating that the Pharaoh who had befriended Joseph and extended hospitality to his family was now deceased, and was succeeded by a different ruler who instituted malevolent policies towards his Hebrew subjects.
However, others advocated a very different reading of the situation: The evil Pharaoh was the same individual as before. What was "new" was not his identity, but his attitude. In other words, the selfsame monarch who had elevated Joseph to greatness subsequently underwent a change of heart and issued new decrees against the children of Israel. According to this view, the Torah's assertion that Pharaoh "knew not Joseph" alludes to a self-imposed amnesia about Egypt's debt to their Hebrew benefactor.
The Talmud, in order to defend this strained reading of the biblical text, observes that the Torah makes no explicit mention of the death of Joseph's Pharaoh. According to the peculiar midrashic modes of reading sacred texts, this kind of argument from silence may be viewed as evidence that the original Pharaoh was still alive and reigning when the Israelites were reduced to slavery.
The Jewish sages have often allowed themselves to take liberties with the literal meaning of the Bible in order to elicit new insights and moral guidance. In the present instance, however, generations of commentators have struggled to understand what advantage was gained by what appears to be a contrived manipulation of the scriptural passage.
I believe that a better understanding of the Talmudic discussion might be achieved if we bear in mind some of the literary and rhetorical features that characterize midrashic discourse.
Much of the literature that is included in ancient midrashic collections originated in the sermons that were preached in ancient synagogues. Midrashic interpretations were normally built around confrontations between verses from different parts of the Bible. In this manner, the rabbis were able to reinforce the fundamental unity of sacred scripture, as well as to suggest novel possibilities of interpretation.
This is the same attitude that underlies our practice of matching the Torah readings on Sabbaths and festivals with haftarot from the Prophets section of the Bible. Indeed, the interplay between the haftarah and the Torah reading provided inspiration for many expositions in talmudic and midrashic literature.
A survey of midrashic collections reveals that several discourses for the opening section of Exodus were based on expositions of Hosea 5:7, which contains a scathing condemnations of Israel: "They have dealt treacherously against the Lord: for they have begotten strange children, now shall a month devour them with their portions."
The allusion to being devoured by a "month" is exceptionally obscure, and scholars continue to argue about its correct interpretation.
The midrashic preachers stressed the etymological relationship between the Hebrew word hodesh (translated here in its usual sense of "month") and its basic root meaning of "new." This inspired them to formulate elaborate sermons in which the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt was blamed on their readiness to introduce new innovations into their ancestral traditions.
The ancient sermons identified specific practices that were viewed as symptoms of Israelites' assimilation to Egyptian lifestyles. Singled out for special denunciation was the practice of some Hebrews of neglecting to circumcise their children; or even of undergoing surgical procedures to undo their own circumcisions.
Another "new" practice for which the Israelites were censured was their adoption of the foreign hair-style known as the b'lurit, which provided further proof of their affection for gentile lifestyles, and might even involve actual participation in heathen religious rituals, since the Greeks and Romans would sometimes clip their b'lurits and offer them to assorted spirits or deities.
Thus, by reading the Exodus story and the Hosea verse in counterpoint, the rabbis were able to conclude that it was on account of their adoption of new and untraditional practices that the generation of Israelites following Joseph's death had "begotten strange children," and it was this offense of "newness" that led ultimately to their being "devoured" by Pharaoh's new decrees.
As is to be expected of any worthwhile sermon, the preachers' concern was not so much with the shortcomings of their long-dead ancestors, but with the behaviour of their contemporaries. Under Roman rule, it was convenient for some individuals to keep their Jewishness under wraps. In times of official anti-Jewish persecutions (such as those associated with the Bar-Kokhba uprising in 135 C.E.), the practice of circumcision might even have been a legally punishable offense.
The midrashic preachers warned their congregations of the gravity of these dangers by projecting them back to the days of Joseph and Moses. The message was now unmistakable: Just as in days of yore the injection of new and foreign elements into the tradition brought about a sudden and fatal transformation of the Israelites' idyllic status in Egypt, so too in the present time, any compromising of Jewish norms will lead to catastrophic consequences
Another possible link between the enslavement of the Hebrews and the concept of "newness" is furnished by Exodus 12:1-20, which begins "This month shall be unto you the beginning of months [hodashim]," again using the same lexical root that designates both "month" and "new." This passage, which is read on the Sabbath preceding the New Moon of Nissan, serves as a liturgical prologue to Passover, and would have provided a convenient opportunity for preachers to dwell upon the evils of religious innovations, and their fatal consequences for the children of Israel.
Seen from this perspective, we might be able to suggest a more cogent explanation of the talmudic debate over the identity of the new Pharaoh.
The rabbi who emphasized the newness of the decrees, rather than of the king, was really trying to stress that the change of circumstances was more important than the question of royal succession. Accordingly, the practical lesson to be derived from the Exodus narrative is that, in keeping with the measure-for-measure logic of Jewish history, any unacceptable departure from established tradition will be punished by an adverse transformation of the condition of the Jews.
To this extent, it is the people themselves who will determine their destiny -- and the fate of the Jewish people can be transformed as easily under a single Pharaoh as under two.
These valuable and timeless lessons were made possible by our rabbis' boldness in proposing novel interpretations to familiar biblical texts, allowing our ancient scriptures to remain fresh and new for each generation.
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