Parashat Shmot, Exodus 1:1-6:1
No one wants to be forgotten.
Soup cans. That's what comes to mind when I think of Andy Warhol. Specifically, tomato soup in a well-known brand's white and red coloured label. Though looking more closely at his work, he also painted pea soup cans, chicken soup cans and lots more for a total of 32 cans in the series. Andy Warhol and soup cans. Well, there were also the multi-coloured Marilyn Monroe prints. But what hit me when I walked into a Chicago exhibit one cold fall afternoon many years ago came as a surprise: A series by Andy Warhol called Ten Portraits of Jews in the 20th Century. Whom would he choose? Whom would you choose? In the gallery were huge canvas portraits of, among others, Sigmund Freud, Golda Meir, the Marx Brothers, and Sarah Bernhardt. If not all these names mean something to you, it could be due to a phenomenon that was observed by Warhol in the 1960's when he said, "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes." The individuals portrayed in the Warhol exhibit had a major influence on society in their time, but chances are that today many people don't recognize all the names.
Think of a similar example: an influential figure, one who strengthened a country's civil foundation, would be familiar to all for a generation but forgotten within two. This is not a new phenomenon. It happened to Joseph. Over the past few weeks we have been reading about how Joseph rose to success in Egypt and saved the Egyptian people and their neighbours from starvation. This week as we begin a new book of the Torah, Shmot (Exodus), we learn that A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. (Exodus 1:8)
Who is this nameless king and how could he not know Joseph, who had done so much for Egypt? Rashi mentions an argument between the rabbinic sages Rav and Shmuel about whether this was actually a new king or an old king who just chose to forget all that Joseph had done. Ibn Ezra points out that the wording is very clear. The fact that it says arose means the new king is not the same as the old one who knew Joseph. Yet surely there would be some official record of all that Joseph had done? Sforno says that it would never occur to the king that the official who saved Egypt could have been a Hebrew. The key word is yada' (to know) a verb which, Nahum Sarna points out, appears more than twenty times in the first fourteen chapters of Exodus:
The usual rendering, "to know," hardly does justice to the richness of its semantic range. In the biblical conception, knowledge is not essentially or even primarily rooted in the intellect and mental activity. Rather, it is more experiential and is embedded in the emotions, so that it may encompass such qualities as contact, intimacy, concern, relatedness, and mutuality. Conversely, not to know is synonymous with dissociation, indifference, alienation, and estrangement; it culminates in callous disregard for another’s humanity.Nahum Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus, p .5
Such callous disregard is evident in the pharaonic decrees mentioned in Shmot: Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground." So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor; and they built garrison cities for Pharaoh: Pithom and Raamses. (Exodus 1:10-11)
How interesting that Pharaoh is so intent on building these cities that will be a symbol of his power and help him spread his might and name throughout the ancient world. Yet, however long that Pharaoh's name was known in the ancient world, it is the equivalent of fifteen minutes of fame, since we don’t even know his name.
Pharaoh's mistake is the same one committed by the builders of the Tower of Babel who build a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves (Genesis 11:4). Pharaoh's edifice rex ultimately ends up as edifice wrecks. Unfortunately, his callousness and selfishness destroys many lives along the way.
We see a similar phenomenon today, when people want to have their name known "out there." They accomplish this in many ways, but in the long run it turns out to be the fifteen minutes of fame predicted by Warhol. The outcome is vapid, superficial and disposable; it is the cultural equivalent of junk food. The pursuit of this goal ends up producing the opposite of what people desire: alienation rather than embrace. Taken to its extreme, the pursuit of the fifteen-minutes-of-fame goal results in Sarna's "callous disregard for another's humanity" and for one's own as well.
We are all aware of this and yet continue to fall under the spell of wanting to be a part of this fifteen minute hoopla. This too is not a new phenomenon. Shmot Rabbah teaches that after the death of Joseph we became enamoured with what we saw around us and did away with mitzvot (commandments) such as brit milah (circumcision). In this way we willingly gave up our legacy for a superficial immediate gratification.
To a certain extent, the desire to have your name known is something we can all understand. No one wants to be forgotten. But how do we ensure that we will be remembered? Is it by spending our lives building edifices that will satisfy us in the short time we spend here? Is it by emulating the latest media darling, or even following that person's fifteen minutes of exploits? Or is it by using our short time here to create a legacy that will outlive us by making a difference to others?
What Pharaoh did not "know" were Joseph's accomplishments. He might have read about them, but he didn't understand them. Joseph was not concerned with his name; he was concerned with the destiny of his people. It was not a painless task. As Joseph tells his brothers although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result — the survival of many people. (Genesis 50:20) (This is reflected in the suffering of the people at the beginning of the book of Exodus. What Pharaoh intended for harm, God intend for good, which will be fulfilled under the leadership of Moses.)
How ironic that Pharaoh built edifices to keep his memory alive, yet his name is forgotten. It is Joseph's legacy that survives and is transformed in the book of Exodus. The story of Joseph is about destiny. The book of Exodus is the fulfillment of that destiny. In Exodus the personal becomes communal. In our lives as well, the personal is communal, and personal best is that which serves the needs of the community.
Rabbi Michal Shekel