“Who Knew Not Joseph”

Oliver-Burkeman-column-fo-007The Book of Exodus that we begin again this week opens with the ominous words: “There arose a king who knew not Joseph.” How is that even possible? Nobody taught him about Joseph during social studies lessons at Pharaoh School? Was Joseph left off the curriculum? Was there no mention of him in the syllabus? Was he excluded from the textbooks by an accidental omission or an intentional agenda? Or is it more nuanced and complex than all that? Perhaps the deeds of Joseph were studied but his ethnic identity, his personal history, and his parentage were intentionally omitted.

How long has this ignorance of Joseph been going on? To what degree is it shared? Did anyone speak out against it? Exodus doesn’t answer any of these questions. What it does describe, however, is the swift, pervasive and brutal force with which the oppression of a previously accepted people takes place. Other than the brave resistance of the midwives, Shifra and Puah, and arguably that of Pharaoh’s own daughter, no Egyptian dares to contradict the cruelty of the king. Exodus attributes the resistance of the midwives to their basic “fear of God.” That is to say they fear Pharaoh, but they fear Divine judgement even more. Nowhere does the narrative convey that their refusal to slaughter Hebrew babies is rooted in loyalty to Joseph, the slave and prisoner who interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh and saved Egypt from starvation.

The opening of Exodus serves as a frightening reminder that forgetting the contributions of any group in a society is the first step toward the disenfranchisement, and in some cases, decimation of a people. The overarching moral claim of Exodus, indeed the entire Torah, is overwhelmingly clear. Having survived the brutal experience of oppression, we are obligated to resist oppression, injustice and hatred under any and all circumstances. An essential element of the mitzvah of resistance is celebrating the achievements of others, no matter their creed, race, country of origin, sexuality, gender, or financial status. As we embark on this new year, and the season during which we acknowledge the contributions of Dr. King and the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, let us be mindful that every culture and every minority has its “Josephs.” To forget that, to act as if such people never existed whether we have heard of them or not, is to forsake a sacred obligation and to break an eternal promise to remember the Josephs of the world.

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