This week’s torah portion, Shemot,marks the beginning of the book of Exodus and the story of the Israelites’descent into slavery and liberation from Pharaoh’s yoke. This epic narrative has inspired peoples from all over the world and throughout history to struggle for their freedom and seek justice.
In the previous weeks leading up to shemot we follow the story and development of Joseph. He was the favourite of his father Jacob and from an early age showed great leadership ability.However, possibly as result of his father’s affection for him to the exclusion of his other children, Joseph was arrogant. His dreams, which he narrated to his brothers and father, betrayed an egocentric lack of concern for the feelings of his brothers and father. Although Joseph had tremendous hubris as a young man, his story is one of self-transformation. After almost being murdered by his brothers, he is sold into slavery in Egypt. There he suffers many ordeals that eventually transform hischaracter from an intelligent, arrogant young man to a wise leader who dedicates his life to the betterment of both the Israelite and the Egyptian peoples, saving them from hunger and economic collapse through the years famine. Later in the story when he was reunited with his brothers, instead of exacting revenge and punishing them for their treatment of him decades before, he forgave them and they were reconciled. The Joseph saga maps for us the journey that we all need to embark upon in order to be more expansive human beings.
In the opening verses of this week’s portion, the Torah teaches us that “a new Pharaoh (god king) arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” (Exodus 1:8). What is it about Joseph that this new Pharaoh did not know? In order to explore this question, it is important to understand that in the ancient world, kings and Pharaohs were revered and had acquired semi-divine status, appointed by the gods to govern over humanity. It is traditionally understood by our commentators that this new Pharaoh did not know of all the good that Joseph had enacted for the kingdom of Egypt, organising its economy so that it could weather the years of famine and emerge as an ancient super-power.
I want to suggest here that the real transformative power of the story for us here is when we understand Pharaoh as the self-centred ego in each and everyone of us that does not wish to see itself as part of an interconnected greater whole. Pharaoh is that aspect of ourselves that is unable see beyond our own desires whereas the journey of Joseph is a journey of self-awakening that a person takes from the place of Pharaoh – the unfettered ego – to the realisation that we are all deeply interconnected and unique, wonderful expressions of a greater whole. It is this understanding that allows us to be relational human beings concerned about the welfare of others.
The core principle of Judaism is its understanding that there is a powerful and mysterious way in which we are all connected and connected to God, the totality of all being. But if it were to end there it would not be enough. We are commanded, all of us, to go on that journey of transformation from Pharaoh to Joseph, from purely selfish concerns to an expansive relational way of being in the world in order to repair our world and ourselves, one relationship at a time.
May we all allow our inner Pharaoh to break free from the constraints of an enslaved selfish ego to acknowledge the possibility of heart-centred, expansive growth so that we, like Joseph, become agents for compassion, forgiveness and wisdom in the world.