Sefer Shemos begins with the Bnei Yisrael transitioning from an extended family of 70 people into a great and mighty nation, almost taking over Mitzrayim. Fearing this great nation, Paroh tricked the Bnei Yisrael and they became his slaves. The slavery lasted 210 years until they were redeemed.
It is strange why Paroh enslaved the Bnei Yisrael at all as they had shown no ill will towards the Egyptians. More importantly, the Egyptians had benefited greatly from the Jews being there. Yaakov’s arrival ended the deadly famine, and Yosef in his role as viceroy turned Egypt into the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world! Why would Paroh deceive their descendants in this way?
The answer is written clearly in the pasuk. “וַיָּ֥קָם מֶֽלֶךְ־חָדָ֖שׁ עַל־מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־יָדַ֖ע אֶת־יוֹסֵֽף” “And a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know about Yosef”. (Shemos 1:8). Since he had no knowledge of all the good Yosef had done for his country, Paroh had no issue seeing the Bnei Yisrael as a threat and acting accordingly. But this doesn’t make sense either; it was only a few years since the last of the Shevatim had died, how could the entire country, new king or not, not have any recollection of the man who had turned them into a world power?
Rashi explains very simply, Paroh pretended as if he didn’t remember Yosef so he could enslave the Jews. Rav Hirsch builds on this point and explains that whenever the pasuk uses the phrase “קום על”, it refers to a hostile takeover. Sometime after the Shevatim died, Mitzrayim was taken over by a foreign power who, in order to insure his rule was secure, wanted to eradicate all memory of the good Yosef had done for the Egyptian people, further solidifying his position of power. That’s why the pasuk says specifically that the King didn’t know who Yosef was, because the nation certainly did.
The final explanation is from the Kli Yakar. He explains that this pasuk doesn’t explain how Paroh was able to enslave the Jews, but was instead a warning to him. The Shevatim did all they could to stop Yosef’s dreams of being a ruler from coming true. They threw him in a pit full of dangerous animals. They sold him into slavery in Mitzrayim, where no one had ever been heard from again. And yet, he eventually rose to second in command of the country, and turned it into a world power. No matter what they tried, it was Hashem’s desire that Yosef reach that position and no power anywhere could stop him from getting there.
Paroh was attempting the same thing. He wanted to push down the Bnei Yisrael, he tried to stop them from having children, he tried to kill their sons, he tried to place them in a servitude from which they would never recover. However, it was the will of Hashem that Bnei Yisrael survive and thrive and become a great nation, one that would eventually receive the Torah and become His nation. There was nothing Paroh could do to stop that, regardless of his will and schemes. The pasuk informs us that Paroh had not learned the lesson of Yosef; he didn’t realize that he couldn’t stop what was meant to be. And he eventually learned this the hard way, as we see in the continuation of the Sefer.
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