Pharaoh Who Doesn’t Know Joseph: Two Explanations
The Egyptian bondage begins with: “A new king arose who did not know Joseph.”
The Talmud, cited by Rashi, brings two opinions:
One opinion says that it was literally a new king and did not know of Joseph’s existence. The other opinion states that it was the same Pharaoh who acted as if he did not know Joseph.
The second opinion makes sense. Pharaoh was not a moral person and had no gratitude for what Joseph did to save his country. That is precisely the lesson the Torah wants to impart; do not be an ingrate like Pharaoh.
But the first opinion that he was truly a new monarch is problematic:
If it is possible that a new monarch who lived many years after Joseph’s passing would not be aware of Joseph’s greatness, what possible lesson can we derive from this fact that he did not know Joseph?
Conversely, if we posit that it is somewhat incredulous that a future Pharaoh would be so ignorant of Joseph’s role and that he acted as if he did not know Joseph, then there is little difference between the two opinions.
Joseph or Tzofnas Pa’aneiach
One way of answering the question is to go back to the time Pharaoh chose Joseph and promoted him to the position of Viceroy, second only to Pharaoh himself.
The Torah informs us of a rather incidental matter. Pharaoh renamed Joseph Tzofnas Pa’aneiach, the revealer of secrets. This name was given to him because he was able to decipher the hidden meaning of Pharaoh’s two dreams.
It is quite likely that Pharaoh’s name stuck and was used by the Egyptians because it was a name in their language. The name Joseph remained among the Jews.
This explains why he did not know Joseph. However, the question still remains, what possible lesson can we derive about Pharaoh’s iniquity from the fact that he only knew Joseph’s Egyptian name. There is nothing sinister about that.
Revealing the Hidden or Innovating
To answer the question we must analyze the conceptual difference between Joseph’s two names.
Tzofnas Pa’aneiach means revealing something that is already in existence; it just has to be revealed. The name Joseph connotes the idea of increasing and innovating.
There is a qualitative and fundamental difference between revealing that which is hidden and the idea of increasing. The former is only about that which already exists that is then exposed; there is no new dynamic. The connotation of the word increase is innovation, revolution and transformation. Joseph represents the ability to transcends that which is already in existence be it evident or beneath the surface.
In theological terms, the difference between the two names, Joseph and Tzofnas Pa’aneiach is the difference between paganism and monotheism.
The pagans believed in the existence of hidden forces within the physical realm. When they worshipped natural phenomena they were worshipping what they perceived to be the underlying forces of each and every physical phenomenon. They thus worshipped multiple deities because they perceived that there were different forces corresponding to the different physical objects and natural occurrences.
Pharaoh was thus impressed with Joseph when he deciphered his two dreams. Pharaoh, in his pagan way of thinking, was impressed that Joseph was able to decipher dreams because it pointed to his ability to tap into the hidden dimensions of nature and elicit those forces for the benefit of society.
Joseph, however, reminded Pharaoh that it is not his power but that of a transcendent G-d, who created nature, both revealed and hidden dimensions of it, and can therefore control, and even alter its path. Pharaoh, however, was not receptive to this truth and insisted on calling Joseph Tzofnas Pa’aneiach, one who is in touch with hidden layers of nature, and can summon them to the surface.
Couldn’t Recognize Joseph
The above might also explain why Joseph’s brothers did not recognize him when they met to purchase grain during the famine.
Joseph was a maverick and a rebel. Joseph was an innovator and a prophet who, by definition, thinks out of the box.
Joseph’s very name suggests that he had the power of total transformation. His name was Joseph because his mother Rachel Said: “May G-d add another son for me.” The Chassidic interpretation of this phrase is that Joseph had the power to transform an “other” an alien to a son. Joseph was able to take one who was completely alienated from G-d and transform him/her into someone who is a son; a child of G-d. This was disconcerting to his brothers. They were not comfortable with this because in a subtle way they felt that they were only capable of revealing the hidden potential of a person. They could not fathom how one can achieve total transformation, which posits the presence of a transcendent force, which they thought was elusive.
To be sure, Joseph’s brothers were absolute monotheists. But since they lived before the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, at which time G-d revealed His transcendent essence, they could not fathom how Joseph was already in touch with that transcendent dynamic.
So when they came to Egypt and came face to face with a Tzofnas Pa’aneiach, they did not recognize Joseph for they knew him to not just be a revealer of secrets. In their minds, Joseph negated the notion that we are molded beings, and that the most we can do is to reveal our hidden potential. While they knew him as a dreamer, his dreams were radical and revolutionary; that he would someday dominate even over their parents! This image of Joseph was at odds with the Tzafnas Pa’aneiach they met in Egypt who was wedded to the idea that we can only reveal already existing conventional forces.
We can now understand what the Torah means when it says that the new king did not recognize Joseph. He did remember a Tzafnas Pa’aneiach, one who could elicit hidden natural forces. He did not, however, recognize a “Joseph”; one who could elicit a transcendent Divine force that can totally alter nature.
This empowered Pharaoh to issue decrees against the Jewish people and convinced him that he could marshal powerful hidden forces to vanquish the Jewish people.
Pharaoh Does Not Know G-d
This same Pharaoh, therefore, declares to Moses and Aaron “I don’t know G-d.” The name for G-d here is the Tetragrammaton [consisting of the Hebrew letters Yud, Hei, Vav, and Hei], which refers to the aspect of G-d that transcends nature. Pharaoh was willing to recognize a G-d who operates within nature and can unleash nature’s hidden power. He was averse to the notion of a single G-d, One who is totally above nature.
Everything Changed at Sinai
Joseph and Moses were indeed unique. They singularly, were able to tap into the transcendent aspect of the Divine. Even the Patriarchs were not privy to this dynamic as the Torah states explicitly in the beginning of the next week’s parsha: “I revealed Myself to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob with the name A-lmighty G-d, but with My [true] name Havayeh, I did not become known to them.”
However at Mount Sinai, this power was instilled into the soul of each and every Jew. At Sinai, when G-d declared, “I am G-d Your G-d…” our potential changed from our capacity to reveal a limited Divine force associated with the name Elokim, the Divine power vested within nature, to revealing the transcendent force that enables us to totally transform ourselves and the world around us.
And while we had that potential from Sinai onward, G-d wanted us to work at exposing it through our actions; dedication to His commandments, even when it goes against our nature.
When we, as a people, accumulate the requisite number of Mitzvos, it will usher in the Messianic Era, where the entire world will recognize this transcendent “Joseph” power.