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Parshat Shemot – The King that Did Not Know Joseph


Exodus 1:1 – 6:1

A New King?

What is the significance in the fact that the “new king arose, a king that did not know Yosef” (Exodus 1:8)?

There are two Divine Attributes, personality traits of G-d’s, that become apparent to us through the way He guides the events of the world. One of these is referred to as יסוד, yesod, “foundation”, and another is referred to as מלכות, malchut, “kingship”.

Although Joseph was technically the viceroy and not the actual king of Egypt, the Pharaoh of his time empowered him in such a way that the only difference between him and Pharaoh was the “throne”, the actual title. In all other ways, Joseph was responsible for governing the great Egyptian empire. Joseph’s prophetic ability to interpret Pharaoh’s dream, combined with his wisdom, enabled him to help the people of Egypt—and surrounding countries—to navigate their way through a famine and survive. Pharaoh recognized Joseph’s uniqueness as a wise and holy leader, astonished by his sagacity, “is there such a person as this, a man filled with the Spirit of G-d?” (Genesis 41:38), and “Since G-d has made all this known to you, there is none so discerning and wise as you. (ibid., verse 39)

Several generations later, there is a “king who did not know Joseph”. This king designated a minority population within his empire for slave labor. He devised a way to control their birthrate with a plan to kill all of their male children. He subjected them to עבודת פרך, avodat parech, hard labor (Exodus 1:13). Here we have to distinguish between manual labor, which, although difficult, allows the body to become stronger and more capable. Avodat parech, on the other hand, is a type of labor that completely overwhelms the body’s capacities, causing it to fall apart (Rashi, ibid.).

If we compare the two kings, we discover that one sustains the entire population by marshalling all of its resources for the benefit of all, while the other aggrandizes power at the expense of his subjects. He builds his empire (Egypt was at its height during this historical period), but he does so on the backs of his people. The third

king is even worse; “who is G-d that I should listen to him?” While it can be argued that of course Joseph, and even the successor to Pharaoh were conscious of G-d, the third king in this week’s portion not only has no consciousness of G-d, but is of the type that attributes divinity to himself in his role as leader.

The Divine Attributes: Yesod and Malchut

Returning to the topic of the Divine Attributes, the attribute of yesod finds its description in the verse, “for all that is in Heaven and upon the earth” (I Chronicles 29:11). Note the communication between Heaven and earth. The attribute of yesod is like a pipe that connects Heaven and earth, a channel as it were, through which G-d sends sustenance to His world. The concept of a tzaddik is related to the attribute of yesod, that person who, because of his holiness, connects people to G-d, and acts as a conduit of G-d’s blessings to everyone. As a conduit, yesod is like a neck, the body part that is required to bring food, air and water into the body for its survival.

The Divine Attribute of malchut, “kingship”, is self-explanatory.

Joseph embodied the attribute of yesod. When someone like that is in a leadership position, the world is sustained and cared for. The abundance that comes down from Heaven is perfectly distributed to support everyone. Thoretically, any king represents G-d’s divine attribute of Kingship. Thus, the Pharaoh of Jospeh’s time filled this role. The combination of yesod and malchut orchestrated a near-perfect form of government, where all subjects are sustained. Joseph says about his own misfortunes, that despite the tragedy of his having been sold by his brothers, “had been sent to sustain life” (Genesis 45:5).

But when the successor to Pharaoh, who did not know Joseph, became king, the synthesis of yesod and malchut was undone, their functions disconnected. At this point, there is a blockage in the “neck” on one hand, and power for power’s sake on the other, causing terrible suffering for the people. Sustenance is no longer distributed, it is stored away for those who have elevated themselves above others, hence the “storage cities for Pharaoh” (Exodus 1:11). Compare these to the grain silos Joseph had constructed to help Egypt through the immanent years of famine.

Note the word Pharaoh, spelled in Hebrew as פרעה. When the letters are recombined, they spell העורף, which means, “the back of the neck”, indicating a force that controls the channel of sustenance, opening and facilitating the flow, or closing it off. When the leader is a tzaddik, the “neck” is wide open to bring in that which sustains the body; when leadership is help by people who are disconnected from G-d, the channel is blocked. There are many different models of government, and arguments can be made for the benefit of each. But one thing is certain, if the people who sit in the seat of power are G-d-fearing, leadership will benefit all, and if they are not, government becomes the instrument of oppression.

The Holy Temple: the Neck of the World?

The Holy Temple is referred to as the “neck of the world”. When Joseph and Benjamin are reunited, they fall upon each other’s necks and weep. Rashi informs us there that they were weeping over the eventual destruction of the Temples that would stand and fall in their respective land inheritances (Genesis 41:14; Rashi, loc. cit). The Temple is a “neck”, because it too is a conduit that connects Heaven to earth, a space through which prayers ascend to G-d, and through which G-d bestows of His Goodness upon the world. May we be blessed to experience the joy of the day when this channel is reopened speedily, in our times, amen.

By Rabbi Tani Burton

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