“A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Yoseph.” (Shmot 1:8)

The book of Exodus begins with a list of the names (shmot) of Yaakov’s sons and by telling the reader that Yosef, his brothers and their entire generation passed away. We are then informed that the population of the Hebrews grew exponentially and that “the land was filled with them.” After this, we are told of the new pharaoh who took the throne and that he “did not know Yoseph.” Who was this new king? Rabbi Steinsaltz (Weisfeld Edition of the Humash) writes, “The identity of the Pharaoh referred to in this verse is uncertain. Some identify him as Thutmose III (1479-1425 BCE), one of the greatest Pharaohs of the Eighteenth Dynasty; others claim it was Rameses II of the Nineteenth Dynasty (1279-1213 BCE), who was perhaps the greatest of all the Pharaohs in Egyptian history. He initiated several large building projects during his reign, including the city of Pi-Rameses, meaning House of Rameses, in Lower Egypt.”

The sages were less concerned with the identity of the pharaoh as they were with the phrase, “he did not know Yoseph.” How was it possible that anyone in Egypt, let alone the king, could not have heard of Yoseph? After all, he was the viceroy to the previous pharaoh and he was the individual who saved Egypt from a devastating famine and enriched the coffers of the monarchy enormously. The Talmud (Sotah 11a) explains that this pharaoh acted in such way as to give the impression that he did not know Yoseph at all. His harsh decrees against the Hebrews effectively cancelled the many benevolent acts that Yoseph had done for the kingdom. According to one sage in the Talmud (ibid), this pharaoh was actually the same king who ruled in the times of Yosef. He was “new” in the sense that he changed his attitude towards the Hebrews and enacted new decrees against them. This passage serves as an important warning to Jews wherever they may be and in whatever era they live, that governments are fickle and that yesterday’s friend can easily become tomorrow’s enemy. Hence the words of Rabban Gamliel in Pirkei Avot (2:3), “Be wary in your dealings with the ruling power, for they only befriend a man when it serves their needs. When it is to their advantage, they appear as friends, but they do not stand by a person in his hour of need.”

I recall, all too well, the gathering at the Gardens Shul on the twelfth of September 2018, when the Jewish community came out in large numbers to honour the new president of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa. Chief Rabbi Goldstein spoke of Mr Ramaphosa in glowing terms, referring to him as “a mentsch”. Our own Joel Merris, who was then chairman of the Union of Orthodox Synagogues, presented him with a Chumash.  There was a sense of euphoria in the air as everyone looked forward to a new era in the history of democratic South Africa. Here was a “new king” who had taken the reins of power from a corrupt tyrant who had sold out the country to the highest bidder. It was, in the words of Ramaphosa, a “new dawn.” The Jewish community felt that we now had a president who would work for the betterment of all South Africans in general, and the Jewish community, in particular. How things have changed! Ramaphosa has been a massive disappointment to the citizens of South Africa and the local Jewish community. Even before the seventh of October, his pronouncements against Israel were more strident than any of his predecessors. His embrace of Hamas and his failure to denounce the savage terror attack on Simchat Torah are ample proof that governing parties are fair-weather friends.

There is a fascinating passage in the Talmud (Shabbat 33b) that is relevant to this matter. Three great sages of the Mishna, namely Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yosei and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai were sitting together.  Another man, Yehuda ben Geirim, was seated close by. Rabbi Yehuda initiated the conversation and said, “How wonderful are the deeds of this nation [the Romans]! They set up marketplaces, they constructed bridges and they built bathhouses. Rabbi Yosei made no comment. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai spoke up and said, “Whatever they did, they did for themselves [not for our benefit.] They set up marketplaces so that prostitutes could ply their trade; they constructed bathhouses to pamper themselves and they built bridges so that they could levy customs duty.” Yehuda ben Geirim went and told others about the conversation and their words eventually reached the ears of the Romans. They said, “Yehuda, who praised us, will be exalted. Yosei who kept silent is to be exiled to Tzippori [in the Galilee] and Shimon who disparaged us, is to be killed!” He [Rabbi Shimon] and his son hid in the Beit Midrash. His wife would bring them food daily but he was concerned that the Romans would pressurise her and she would reveal their whereabouts, so they fled to a cave where they remained for thirteen years.

The three rabbis in the story were all disciples of Rabbi Akiva (Yevamot 62b). Their master was brutally executed by the Romans during the reign of Hadrian in which hundreds of thousands of Jews were massacred. It is surprising that any student of Rabbi Akiva would say something positive about the Romans. Why then did Rabbi Yehuda praise them? The Maharsha (Chiddushei Aggadot) explains that Rabbi Yehuda agreed with his colleague Rabbi Shimon but said what he said because of his fear of the government. He was expressing what he felt was prudent even if it was not true. This is one approach when it comes to dealing with the government, especially an openly hostile one. This was the approach adopted by Jews throughout history in the diaspora. They dare not provoke the wrath of the sovereign for fear of serious repercussions, such as exile, torture or forced conversions. Their dealings with the king/czar/sultan were always respectful if not sycophantic. But Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was a man of truth and he could not countenance positive remarks about the Romans, the same empire that destroyed the Temple, burnt Jerusalem and murdered his teacher. He paid a heavy price for his honesty but the Jewish people are forever enriched by his courage, for it was during the thirteen years in hiding that Rabbi Shimon and his son formulated the basis for the mystical teachings of the Torah. In many democratic countries, including South Africa, there is freedom of speech and people have the right to criticise the government without fear of retribution. Despite this, Jews are still rather fearful to express their views. Not so Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein who courageously criticised the president, the ruling party and even the pope in his outstanding YouTube videos since the seventh of October. He has called out their blatant anti-Israel bias and their anti-Semitism and his remarks have found favour in the eyes of the community and beyond. If you have not watched the videos, I urge you to do so. The link to his channel is http://www.youtube.com/@chiefrabbigoldstein

Lee, Chani Merryl and Naomi join me in wishing you Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Liebenberg

Link to Rabbi’s YouTube message for the parsha: https://youtu.be/ffy6CYk7oLQ

*Thursday 11 January – Rosh Chodesh Shevat. Shevat contains the minor festival of Tu B’Shevat, the new year for the produce of the trees (Thursday 25 January). The Molad (appearance of the new moon) for Shevat is on Thursday, 11 January, at 08h45 and 4 chalakim (a chelek, literally a “portion”, is a Talmudic measure of time equal to one-eighteenth of a minute, or 3 and 1/3 seconds).

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