Rabbi's Blog


 There Arose a New King Who Knew Not Joseph...

What do you mean, “Who knew not Joseph”?  A king didn’t know his own country’s history?  How could it be that a prince who would later become Pharaoh hadn’t been tutored in the annals of the kingdom, which surely included information about the massive contributions made to his country by this immigrant and resident alien?  As Genesis tells the story, Joseph had saved all of Egypt from a disastrous famine, not merely by foreseeing it, but by devising strategies to stockpile food ahead of time and dispense it during the famine, and then putting into place the government infrastructure to carry out this policy. Classic big-government policy; but in this case, nothing less would have allowed Egypt to maintain its position as leader of their area of the world. Joseph’s entire family (a clan then numbering 70) immigrated to the country and settled in Goshen, a district unused by the Egyptians but suited to Jacob and Joseph’s family's main occupation as livestock breeders.  How could it be that there arose a new king who knew not Joseph?   

Traditional Jewish commentary even questions how this king came to be on the throne.  Shouldn’t there have been a death notice about the old king, if the succession had passed in the ordinary way?  Ibn Ezra (12th c Spain) suggests a radical discontinuity: The new king was not from the same lineage as the old king. (Palace coup? Invasion? Populist uprising?)  Chizkuni (13th c. France) and others suggest that it was actually the same old, same old king, but he started enacting new decrees. 

Old king or new, Rashi (11th c France) points out that he acted as though he knew not Joseph.  Maybe the king knew, and maybe he didn’t want to know, but either way, we were in trouble.

One commentator (Sforno, 16th century Italy) blames the victim.  To paraphrase:  "Sure, Pharaoh knew about Joseph.  But his descendants had so far fallen in the world that nobody connected the current Israelites with their illustrious ancestor, on account of their (unspecified) current behavior."  The corollary of this unfortunate perspective is what’s called “The Politics of Respectability”: To receive better treatment from the group in power, we of the minority have to behave better according to the customs of the majority.  For the record, it doesn’t work, not to mention being unjust and self-damaging.  See here for a well-written, wise-ass essay defining "respectability politics":  http://www.theroot.com/the-definition-danger-and-disease-of-respectability-po-1790854699 

There arose a new king who knew not Joseph, and he appealed to the populace with racist and fear-mongering words:  “Look at all these aliens, these foreigners.  They’re everywhere!  They’re taking over!  But we can prevent that if we’re smart enough.”  I’m reading “rise from the ground” as some commentators do, meaning “come to dominate us,” rather than the more common “get up out of the land.”  (See below, Exodus chapter 1 verse 10.)

How could this happen?  One clue lies in verse 6:  Joseph died, and all his brothers, and all that generation.   The living witnesses were gone, “The times they are a-changin’.”  A new generation arose, not just a new king. 

 I remember when President Clinton (sigh) enacted “Don’t ask, don’t tell” I heard a radio commentary which included some research about what changed people’s attitudes about queer folk.  The likeliest predictor of a positive attitude toward gay rights (as we called it then) was knowing a gay man or lesbian.  Or rather, I should say, knowing that you knew one, since so many of us lived relatively closeted lives.  

But gay people pop up in the best (and worst) families; but culture and wealth, not to mention physical characteristics, tend to be passed down the generations within families.  So it’s hard to get to know — really know, as peers and equals and friends — folks from a different culture, socio-economic status, race, or immigrant status, unless you work at it.  And in the absence of personal contact and personal story-telling, all sorts of myths are liable to spring up, including ones that rewrite history.  Bridging the divide between rural Goshen and cosmopolitan Egypt would have required mixing and mingling of people who were quite content to stay separate, and it just didn’t happen.  To the great detriment, not only of the Israelites, but in the end to the detriment of Egypt too, which suffered under plagues that were the consequences of a Pharaoh with a hard heart.  (But that part of the story begins in next Shabbat’s Torah portion.  See Exodus 7:8 and following at http://www.sefaria.org/Exodus.7.8?lang=bi)

So the new king and his policies were aided and abetted by a stratified society, in which the majority of people only knew their own reality; at best, how “the other half” (or fraction) lived was seen from a distance.   So there was a large segment of the population who were ready to hear Pharaoh’s characterizations of these outsiders, and later to carry out the slow genocide that he decreed  (Exodus 1:22 http://www.sefaria.org/Exodus.1.22?lang=bi).

In the story which begins in this week’s Torah portion, it takes Divine intervention to end the Israelites’ enslavement.  But later Jewish tradition teaches that we are not to rely on miracles.  Instead, we follow the example of the two Hebrew midwives who show up a few verses later (Exodus 1:15-22).  (Presumably, they were Egyptian midwives who attended to births among the Hebrews.  Or did Pharaoh perhaps believe that he could co-opt  two women to act against their own people??  http://www.sefaria.org/Exodus.1.15?lang=bi)

Pharaoh instructed them to kill all the Hebrew baby boys at birth, but the midwives respected God and followed their consciences, using Pharaoh’s very prejudices against him.  When Pharaoh called them on the carpet for disobeying his orders, they replied, “Oh, you know those Hebrew women, they’re savages.  They just pop those babies out before we can get to them.”  Here I give my own translation of the word חיות / chayot in verse 19, variously translated as “vigorous” or “lively.”  “Chayot” means “alive, living” but it also means “wild animal.”  The midwives play on Pharaoh’s assumption that Egyptians are civilized and Hebrews are barely house-broken, and he accepts their assertion without question.   

Direct civil disobedience would probably cost the midwives their jobs in a crucial “helping profession,” if not their lives.  But they find non-violent and non-confrontational ways to subvert “the man,” and they pull it off successfully.  They take a brave and principled stand right in the face of power, using Pharaoh's own world-view in order to subvert that world-view.   

Unfortunately, Pharaoh then turns to the general public and incites them to murder.  While the midwives alone cannot change public policy and stop the slaughter, they continue to structure their own lives and work in accordance with the highest principles, ones they understand to be godly.  And they are remembered for the good:  “And God dealt well with the midwives…and because the midwives respected God, God established households for them.”  (Exodus 1:20-21 http://www.sefaria.org/Exodus.1.20?lang=bi)

"There arose a new king who knew not Joseph.”  When public policy is made by people who disparage immigrants, incite violence, spread fear and hatred, and make use of the estrangement of segments of the population from each other; people who ignore the past and rewrite the present — the stage is set for all manner of bitterness  (Exodus 1:14).  

We each have an acute responsibility in this time to hold fast to our highest principles and to put them into action in any way we can.  And ideally, doing so without putting ourselves or anyone else into peril.

There is also a crying need to travel beyond the borders of our own community, because knowing the “other” is the most powerful way to avoid “othering” people we don’t know.   Goshen and Thebes need to know each other, not just “about” each other.

If we do these things, there is no guarantee that we will be able to change public policy sufficiently to mitigate harm.  But if we do not do them, things will assuredly be worse.  Let us be remembered for the good!


From this week’s Torah portion Sh'mot — Exodus chapter 1, verses 6-12:


וַיָּ֤מָת יוֹסֵף֙ וְכָל־אֶחָ֔יו וְכֹ֖ל הַדּ֥וֹר הַהֽוּא׃

Joseph died, and all his brothers, and all that generation. 


וּבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל פָּר֧וּ וַֽיִּשְׁרְצ֛וּ וַיִּרְבּ֥וּ וַיַּֽעַצְמ֖וּ בִּמְאֹ֣ד מְאֹ֑ד וַתִּמָּלֵ֥א הָאָ֖רֶץ אֹתָֽם׃

But the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them. 


וַיָּ֥קָם מֶֽלֶךְ־חָדָ֖שׁ עַל־מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־יָדַ֖ע אֶת־יוֹסֵֽף׃

A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. 


וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אֶל־עַמּ֑וֹ הִנֵּ֗ה עַ֚ם בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל רַ֥ב וְעָצ֖וּם מִמֶּֽנּוּ׃

And he said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. 


הָ֥בָה נִֽתְחַכְּמָ֖ה ל֑וֹ פֶּן־יִרְבֶּ֗ה וְהָיָ֞ה כִּֽי־תִקְרֶ֤אנָה מִלְחָמָה֙ וְנוֹסַ֤ף גַּם־הוּא֙ עַל־שֹׂ֣נְאֵ֔ינוּ וְנִלְחַם־בָּ֖נוּ וְעָלָ֥ה מִן־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

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.” 


וַיָּשִׂ֤ימוּ עָלָיו֙ שָׂרֵ֣י מִסִּ֔ים לְמַ֥עַן עַנֹּת֖וֹ בְּסִבְלֹתָ֑ם וַיִּ֜בֶן עָרֵ֤י מִסְכְּנוֹת֙ לְפַרְעֹ֔ה אֶת־פִּתֹ֖ם וְאֶת־רַעַמְסֵֽס׃

So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor; and they built garrison cities for Pharaoh: Pithom and Raamses. 


וְכַאֲשֶׁר֙ יְעַנּ֣וּ אֹת֔וֹ כֵּ֥ן יִרְבֶּ֖ה וְכֵ֣ן יִפְרֹ֑ץ וַיָּקֻ֕צוּ מִפְּנֵ֖י בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

But the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and spread out, so that the [Egyptians] came to dread the Israelites.



A Trip to Sharon Springs, NY

10 October 2017


Today was a serendipitous trip to Sharon Springs, NY.

Not serendipitous for the seven women who had planned to go together on the trip sponsored by the Women's Philanthropy division of our local Jewish Federation; but I didn't know anyone from Berith Sholom was going and they didn't know that I was going.  Serendipitously, we had a congregational outing.  It was quite wonderful to spend the day with them.

I had spent a few days in Sharon Springs a decade ago and was quite fond of what I remembered: a funny mixture of old and new, Jewish and gay and Korean, in semi-rural upstate NY.  So when I saw the trip announced a month or so ago, I jumped at the chance.  It felt a little like playing hooky ... but I would be participating in the wider community (which helps our little congregation's visibility), and after the High Holy Days I knew I would need a few relaxing days, and this could be one of them, especially if the weather cooperated.  Which it most certainly did.

But then it turned out to be with my congregation after all, and that made it very sweet.   The 7 members of Berith Sholom and I made up exactly one table for lunch at Miss Lodema's Tea Room.  

01 CBS participants at Miss Lodemas Tea House

I can't exactly say I have connections in Sharon Springs ... but the title Rabbi gives one an audacity sometimes, and today it ended up enhancing the trip.  Linda Pollack at Federation, who made the arrangements, had tried very hard to get the synagogue opened for our visit.  That's the "new" synagogue, up on Willow Street.  But the rabbi lives out of town, and it's very hard to travel on Chol haMo'ed Sukkot if you're spending all morning in shul.  For whatever reason, the local caretaker wasn't available today.  So it looked like we weren't going to be able to get in.

And then I discovered that no one leading the trip knew about the old shul ... but I did, because I had been there, 10 years ago.  We walked around a bit when we arrived, and I figured out where it must be, from the curve of a street that I remembered.  Maxine Koblenz, who visited Sharon Springs as a little girl with her mother and Bubbie, remembered seeing huge black limousines pull up carrying Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson z"l and his entourage.  (Turns out it was Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum z"l and Satmer Chasidim.  Thank you Susie R. for tracking down this photography exhibit at the Fenimore Art Museum!)

So after lunch off we wandered.

The old chasidic shul at 108 Union Street, front

When I visited here 10 years ago, I stayed with one of the only Jewish inhabitants of the town -- it just worked out that way, as his B&B was quite affordable. He knew quite a bit about the town's Jewish history, including this shul, and made sure we had the opportunity to see it.  I have on my bookshelf, from that day, a volume of Tehillim (Psalms) that I rescued from one of the rooms in this crumbling building.

You can see one green pew sitting at the far end of the front porch, but otherwise there is nothing out front to indicate this was a synagogue.  There is bare wood on a side doorframe where a mezuzah was removed, but that's probably true of half the boarding houses in town.  Clearly the building was originally a house -- perhaps a "cottage" in the grand Victorian style -- and later became a prayer space.  

The back, as you can see, is open to the elements.  

Old shul from the back, close-up

Old shul from the back, distant view from near mikveh



Further back (photo below right) is a dilapidated building, maybe originally a carriage house, which had been converted into living quarters.  I remember going upstairs a decade ago, and it was fairly decrepit then.  I wouldn't chance it today.

Dilapidated living quarters behind old shul

As we were looking around this afternoon, someone asked if there was a mikveh (ritual bath).  That tickled the back of my mind, and eventually I pushed through the weeds to the shed-like structure which stands at the back left corner of the property.  It looked, in fact, almost like a sukkah, appropriate to the season but unlikely where there is no contemporary Jewish community.  It was not a sukkah; it was unmistakably a mikveh.

Approaching mikveh from side

Mikveh mayim means "a gathering of waters."  It refers to a body of "living water" which is used ceremonially to mark transitions of personal status.  Any body of natural water is automatically a mikveh, as far as I know; but for reasons of modesty and comfort, observant communities always build an indoor mikveh.  A constructed mikveh requires two pools: the pool in which one immerses is filled with ordinary tap water, while the other pool collects rainwater.  There is a hole (Hebrew bor) connecting the two, and when the waters "kiss," the tap water is considered to have been transformed into "living water" like the natural water.  

The design and size of mikva'ot hasn't changed much in 2,000 years.  (See info about the Burnt House in Jerusalem, though the photo doesn't show the mikveh clearly.  There are some nice photos in the Wikipedia article about Mikveh.)  Every mikveh I have seen has steps to assist the person to enter and leave again.

Between the size and the steps, there really wasn't any question what we were standing next to.  It was bittersweet: That a Jewish community had flourished here; that it had abandoned its former summer home and moved elsewhere, leaving behind a desolate and crumbling shul; and that we, all women, would not have been particularly comfortable or welcome in that community -- at least I wouldn't have been.  There's not much place for female rabbis in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish world (!), and even less for lesbians.

Yet we claim them as part of us, part of the Jewish community, whether or not they claim us.

Looking down into the mikveh: steps, leaves, reflection of trees

The photo below, looking across the rim of the mikveh, shows the bor (hole) through which natural and tap water "kiss."

Mikveh showing "bor" (hole) connecting the rainwater pool with the immersion pool

Sharon Springs was a thriving town in its heyday.  (Seehere.)   The town has hosted communities of Chasidic Jews, Holocaust survivors, and I think elderly Russian Jews, along with the thousands of people (Jewish and non-Jewish) who came as individuals and families for the reputed curative properties of the waters. The earliest settler families were Dutch Reformed and Lutheran. Several of the businesses that have tried to put Sharon Springs on the map in the past two decades are owned by gay men.  The largest spa building has been tied up in wranging among a Korean development group for the past decade; a resolution has been reached, and permits recently acquired, and connstruction begun.  So the next phase of development may be an influx of Korean tourists brought in by the busload.

As we walked around the block to the old shul, we encountered the man at whose B&B I had stayed all those years ago.  He's a part-time resident of the town and probably the only Jew living there now.  I recognized him but as we had just heard some rather strong words about him, I decided that I didn't need to complicate the situation by claiming an acquaintance.  

In any case, he wanted to know about our visit, and when we told him that we had not been able to arrange for the "new" synagogue to be opened for us, he offered us the phone number of the caretaker and then, more importantly, announced "There's always a key."  This was the second bit of serendipity of the day -- our little bit of bashert: Because we met him while walking down the street, because I knew who he was, because I wasn't shy about making use of the information he offered, we were able to see the synagogue from the inside as well as the outside.  I think it was a highlight of the day.

The new synagogue up on Willow Street was built in 1904 and rededicated 50 years later.  There is no congregation these days, but the building is sometimes used by those who want to celebrate a special occasion there.  I imagine it's mostly people who have a personal connection to the old days in Sharon Springs.  

Thanks to "crowd-sourcing" on Facebook, I now know that the Yiddish sign (below) says "Please close the door."  The tiny word at the bottom is a sort of Yiddish transliteration of "yasher koach" (well done!); it says "sh'koyach..."

There was a simple mechitzah (divider, screen) set up, with tables and chairs on either side.  Perhaps an ultra-Orthodox wedding, with men and women seated separately?  In any case, the last photo captures light from the stained glass falling on the mechitzah.

Front of 1904 synagogue on Willow Street

14 Dedication plaque 1904 synagogue"Please close the door, sh'koach" Yiddish sign inside the door of the 1904 synagogue

16 Stained glass colors on the mechitzah 1904 synagogue