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Parashat Sh’mot (Exodus 1:1-6:1)

“Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph. And he said unto his people: Behold, the people of the children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us.”
(Exodus 1:8-9)

Parashat Sh’mot, which opens the second book of the Torah, describes the change in status of the Children of Israel in Egypt.  Pharoah’s fear of Israel and his resulting oppression is stated explicitly in the opening chaper.  However, the reasons for his fear are mentioned only elliptically.

The Torah states, “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” (Exodus 1:8; perhaps the earliest formulation of, “What have you done for me lately?”)  Commentators argue over whether the pharaoh was a new ruler unaware of the history, or an existing ruler with new policies who chose to ignore Joseph’s contribution to Egypt (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 11a). Still, both interpretations focus on the words lo yada, Hebrew for “did not know.”

Nahum Sarna (1923–2005; a modern Biblical scholar) points out yada is a critical word in the story, appearing over twenty times in the first fourteen chapters of Exodus.  In modern Hebrew, yada means cognitive or intellectual knowing.   In Biblical Hebrew, however, yada represents experiential, social, and emotional learning and implies connection, intimacy, and mutuality.  The opposite of yada, then, is not mental ignorance. Rather, it is indifference and estrangement. Since Pharoah had no experience with the Israelites, he felt no connection to them, permitting him to enslave them.

Knowing, then, implies an integrated engagement across multiple domains of human experience: mental, emotional, and social. The result is a personal investment, connection, and commitment to the matter at hand, whatever it may be. That is a pretty good articulation of the JCC’s approach to Jewish learning.

Good Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom,


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