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What could explain the sudden change of heart toward the Jews expressed by the “new Egyptian king” who mysteriously appears in the Torah portion this week?

By: Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

This week’s Torah portion is “Shemot” (Exodus 1:1–6:1) and in it we read about a “new king” who enslaves the Jewish people. Let’s take a deeper look into this “new king.”

Back when Joseph was in jail, he asked the wine butler “Please do with me kindness, and mention me to Pharaoh, that I may be taken out of this house.” The commentators suggest that this wording is alluding to Joseph asking to be let out of jail as a favor, a deserving act of kindness of sorts from Pharaoh.

But what could Joseph have done for Pharaoh prior to this point in time that would earn him a “favor”? They hadn’t even ever met! Furthermore, from the fact that Joseph is in jail for supposedly “starting up” with Potiphar’s wife, and Pharaoh and Potiphar were good buddies, it is unlikely that Pharaoh would come to Joseph’s assistance at any time!

And, of course, Joseph was a Jew, the lowest rung in society. So what was Joseph thinking? Why in the world would Pharaoh let him out of jail? What’s going on here?

And here’s another question: When Pharaoh later made Joseph the viceroy of Egypt, Joseph enacted a lot of decrees that probably weren’t too popular with the people. For example, he moved the city dwellers to the rural areas and the rural dwellers to the city. He also forced the men to circumcise themselves. They didn’t like any of it. And when they complained to Pharaoh, Pharaoh simply told them that Joseph was the boss – the could obey him or starve. The choice was theirs. So how is it possible that “a new king arose that did not know Joseph”? Joseph was very well known…throughout the world!

Get this: In ancient times there was a group of people from Western Asia who took over Egypt. These people were known to the Egyptians as “Hyksos,” meaning, “rulers of foreign countries”. They were comprised of many different tribes. Their enemies would call them “shepherds” and their kings were known as “shepherd kings.” The Egyptians hated them.

As such, the Pharaoh who was in power while Joseph was in jail was not actually a native Egyptian – he was one of those “shepherd kings!” These people were all descendants of Abraham through Ishmael and Ketura! Pharaoh and Joseph were family!

We can now understand Joseph’s request of the wine butler. He wanted the wine butler to remind Pharaoh that there was a prisoner from “the land of the Hebrews.” He wanted to hint to Pharaoh that he was a Jew…a cousin of his! This is one of the reasons that Pharaoh made Joseph second in command.

This is why Joseph’s brothers are told that if Pharaoh asks “what is your profession”? They were to respond “We are shepherds”! That was the secret code for easy handling because “the Egyptians abhorred all shepherds”! And as a result, they were sent to live autonomously in Goshen.

So the “new king” now taking over is truly a native Egyptian who inherently hates the Jews. His one and only desire is to take revenge on the Jews –relatives of the “shepherd kings”– and so he enslaves them. The rest is history.

For more insights by Rabbi Enkin on this week’s Torah portion, click on the links below:







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