Parshat Shemot • Shemot 1:1–6:1

“A new king arose over Egypt who knew not Joseph.” This week’s Torah portion, the first in the Book of Exodus (Shemot 1:1-6:1), presents a sudden shift in status for the Israelite people: the ruler who knew Joseph was kind to the Israelite people while the ruler who didn’t would deal shrewdly with them. The abruptness of this verse apparently bothered the authors of the Zohar, the mystical text of Jewish tradition: “Rabbi Hiyya said, ‘Thirty days before a nation rises to power or is overtaken by calamity on earth, that event is proclaimed in the world. Sometimes it is transmitted through the mouths of children, sometimes through people who have no sense, and sometimes that word is transmitted through the mouths of birds who announce it in the world yet no one notices.’” Unable to accept that such dramatic change can happen unforeseen, they rationalize that we must simply have missed the signs. The authors of the Zohar point out an important reality: as human beings, we are indeed quite adept at seeing only that which we want to see.

An equally powerful lesson might also be found in the opposite teaching. Sometimes things do happen in an instant, without warning, that completely reframe our world view and either delight us or challenge us to the limits of our emotional capacity. New situations arise which know not the arrangements of the past. May we find the courage to face them as our ancestors faced their new reality, eventually emerging from our own personal mitzrim to the promised land.

Rabbi Aaron Meyer