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“And a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know of Yosef” (Shemos 1:8).

Rashi quotes the Sages, some of whom interpret this passage to mean that it was, indeed, a new king but some of whom explain that it was the same king who made believe that he did not know of Yosef; in other words, he disregarded all that Yosef had done for him.

The sad phenomenon of ant-Semitism, from which our Nation has suffered for thousands of years, begins with this episode in Egypt. Throughout our history, scholars and laymen alike have searched for the explanation of why the Gentiles hate us. Many invalid answers have been presented. Following is the clarification given by the Beis Haleivy (Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveichik zt”l of Brisk), based on the teaching of the Midrash.

The Navi complains, “They have dealt treacherously against Hashem, for they have begotten strange children...” (Hoshea 5:7). This indicates that the Jews in Egypt did not circumcise the children they produced. “...now shall a month devour them...” [the Midrash is interpreting the Hebrew word chodesh, month, as if it were voweled chadash, meaning new] as it says, “And a new king arose” [over Egypt] (Shemos 1:8); The Holy One, Blessed be He, said, “You have innovated upon yourselves a new type of service, I too will bring upon you someone who will originate your bondage.” “...with their portions,” [the Midrash is interpreting the Hebrew word chelek, portion, as if it were voweled chalak, meaning to slip away] because they slipped away from the Holy One Blessed be He (Yalkut Shim’oni on Nach, remez 520 (Hoshea 5).

This passage from the Midrash is a bit complex. It tells of an apparently grave sin committed by the Jewish People while in Egypt. They did not circumcise their newborn male children! This is indeed treacherous conduct. Nevertheless, rather than refer to this practice as a lack of service to Hashem. the Midrash calls it an undertaking of a new type of service. This seems to imply that their actual intent was to perform some type of observance by means of their procedure. What benefit could they possibly have imagined they would receive by refusing to bring their young males into the Covenant of our Patriarch Avraham?

The Beis Halevy explains that the Children of Israel were aware that Hashem had decreed upon Avraham that his descendants would be slaves in a foreign land for four hundred years. They realized, too, that this decree was now in effect, and that they were destined to fulfill their destiny there in Egypt. Consequently, the Jews were afraid that although the Egyptians did appreciate them now and recognized how much they had contributed to Egypt’s welfare, nevertheless, as time would pass, future generations may be upset with the Hebrews who kept themselves apart from them, and future Egyptians may develop resentment towards their children. And so, anticipating the evolution of anti-Semitism in the future, they began an active campaign to “nip it in the bud,” and prevent its genesis.

Like their descendants, the Reformers, thousands of years after them would do, these concerned Jews began to ponder the causes of prejudice towards the Jewish People in an attempt to find the antidote to the problem. Interestingly, they came to the same conclusion their offspring would: our policy of being a separate nation is what gets our neighbors agitated and the solution therefore is, “Let us become like the Egyptians.” They reasoned, logically, that if we were to be akin to the Egyptians they would have no reason to hate us.

And so, not in a rebellious spirit did they seek to become lax in the performance of the bris milah, but rather in a mood of social reform, in an effort to insure the safety of the generations after them, they innovated a “new service”; a philosophy of being akin to the Gentiles. By not circumcising their male newborn, they thought they had inaugurated a program which would prevent discrimination against the Hebrews and check anti-Semitism before it reared its ugly head.

What was the result of their seemingly sensible, irrefutable strategy? We read in Tehillim (105:25) the following description: “He turned their (the Egyptians’) heart to hate His People, to deal craftily with His servants.” This is what is meant in the above stated Midrash that “The Holy One, Blessed be He, said, ‘You have innovated upon yourselves a new type of service, I too will bring upon you someone who will originate your bondage.’“ In absolute contrast of the Jewish well-wishers’ goal, Hashem caused the Egyptians to hate them instead. Why? “Because they slipped away from the Holy One, Blessed be He.”

A rabbi once told me that in his opinion, the most frustrating and aggravating situation is that described in the Torah’s curse, “And you will expend your strength in vain” (Vayikra 26:20). To illustrate his point, he related to me the following story he had read in the news: A young girl fell into a well. The rescue committee struggled for a week, under the most trying conditions, in a valiant attempt to find her and save her. Finally, after seven strenuous days, they found her...dead. One can surely imagine their disappointment, having tried so hard, yet all for naught. It well surpasses the normal feelings of anguish they would have had if the girl had just simply been found dead immediately upon their arrival, the very first day.

Although I agree with the rabbi that the torment of having spent energy for nothing is great indeed, nevertheless, I believe that there is another situation which is much more exasperating. The Torah tells us that when Yosef was in prison in Egypt he correctly interpreted the dream of Pharaoh’s chief butler which foretold of the butler’s imminent release from the pit. Seeing this as an opportunity to gain his own freedom from punishment for a crime he had not committed, Yosef hoped that the butler would be his emissary of deliverance. Yosef then appealed to the butler that upon his liberation he should mention him kindly to Pharaoh in an effort to gain his release too. However, we find that Yosef was not actually called before the king until two years later when he subsequently gained his freedom.

The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 89:1) teaches us that when the butler was freed, the time had actually come for Yosef to be released from prison too. However, because Yosef relied on the chief butler rather than on Hashem, he was punished with an additional two years’ stay in prison.

I think that the frustration of energy spent in vain is trivial compared to the agony one experiences knowing that his salvation was at hand but specifically as a direct result of his own intervention on his behalf, he himself caused a counter-reaction which extended his sufferings beyond their destined allotment.

Such was the fate of the Children of Israel. Having concluded that the Egyptians who admired them and loved them now would one day begin to loathe their existence, and convinced that their future lied in their own hands, they innovated a new service to counteract anti-Semitism. “Let us be akin to the Egyptians,” they cried, “so that they will never hate us but continue to adore us as they do today.” By doing this, says the Midrash, they “slipped away from the Holy One, Blessed be He.” Rather than rely on Hashem, they trusted in their own solutions which were based on seemingly natural, understandable world events.

The result was counter-productive. Hashem said, “You have innovated upon yourselves a new type of service, I too will bring upon you someone who will originate your bondage” - “And a new king arose.” Whether or not the king himself was actually new or just made believe that he didn’t know Yosef is not the real issue. The Rabbis who disputed this point were merely trying to explain to us that anti-Semitism in Egypt was something new, something unheard of in recent years. The Egyptians went to bed at night with love of the Hebrews in their hearts. The next morning they awakened with a Hitleristic malice towards them! Were one to interview the oppressors and ask them why they suddenly detested the Jews they would not have known themselves the source of the repugnancy they suddenly felt in their hearts. They too would probably have complained that “the other Jew” is no good and so they all must be done away with.

But the Torah, the agent of Truth, reveals to us the secrets which no one can know of his own accord. Those feelings of contempt, the disgust and revulsion which the Egyptians felt when they saw the Israelites, had been planted in their hearts by no one else but Hashem Himself! “He turned their heart to hate his people, to deal craftily with his servants.” Why? “Because they slipped away from the Holy One, Blessed be He.”

Unfortunately, the Jews did not learn their lesson from this tragic mistake but were to repeat it, again and again, throughout their history.

Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel