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The Power of Knowing

"A new ruler arose over Egypt, and he did not know Joseph.”

One verse, and it is such a powerful statement; signaling a great shift in the treatment of the Israelites in the Torah. This is one of the most chilling verses in the Torah.

It suggests that a ruler over Egypt is not actually inherently bad for the Jews. But who that leader is, and how much the leader knows the people makes all the difference.

This week’s Torah portion is called Shemot, which means “names,” and it begins with a list of the names of Jacob’s progeny who had flourished under Egyptian Rule in the book of Genesis.

All Israelites as well enjoyed safety and security under that Pharaoh.

But then ten little words that would change it all, Exodus 1:8:

Vayakom Melech Chadash Al Mitzrayim Asher Lo Yada Et Yosef

And arose a new ruler over Egypt and he did not know Joseph.

The text tells us that this new ruler and the Hebrews' relationship with his office would be different. He would not know them. And this damning statement foreshadowed the great tidal wave of oppression that would soon be hurled at the Hebrews.

So, what's so wrong with Lo Yada-- not knowing-- someone?

Strong’s Concordance defines the Hebrew term for knowing, “Yada,” as:

“A primitive root. Used in a great variety of senses, figuratively, literally, euphemistically and [perhaps most interesting here] inferentially (including observation, care, recognition).”

The same way that the term works when you acknowledge on Facebook that you know someone and would like to friend them. Knowing someone implies connection.

The Mishnah, from the year 200 CE, in the Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, reminds us that knowing someone and someone’s experience humanizes them.

Rabbi Hillel would say, “do not judge your fellow until you have stood in their

shoes.” (2:4) In other words, we are not to erect walls of judgement or distance without really knowing someone. The implication is that we are never to erect walls of judgement EVER-- because if we did of course stand in someone else’s shoes. If we saw their life through their perspective, and understood their behavior intrinsically, there would be no way to look at them with disfavor if we knew them.

It is through knowing one another that we disarm our human impulses to judge, demean and degrade. Clearly this new Pharaoh did not know the Israelites as he easily ordered harsh decrees against them.

He must have missed the memo that so many Jewish leaders are taught--a piece of wisdom originating in the Talmud (Berachot 28b)-- in some sanctuaries it is inscribed over the ark-- “Da lifnei mi atah omed” “Know before whom you stand.” To be legitimated as leaders, we must know our constituents-- our congregants-- our community members.

As clergy, we are privileged to know so many of you on such a profound and deep level-- your fears, your joys, your triumphs and perils and your deepest yearnings. It is an honor to be let into your lives in this way. We know you. And we love you.

This is probably why another clergy member, Mr. Rogers, encouraged us to get to know the people in our neighborhood.

Our work as citizens has to therefore include standing up and speaking up to let our elected officials and those who might soon become elected officials know us-- form real relationships with another. So that when we or they assume leadership, it will really be by the people for the people and of the people, as the US Constitution envisioned. We guard against the trap into which the second pharaoh fell-- not knowing the people he led, led him to inflict real harm. He wasn’t in touch with their humanity, and so he could disregard it.

I pray, that all leaders will da lifnei mi atah omeid-- will know before whom they stand and make policies based on that love-inspired knowing. Amen!

The above is a reflection by Rabbi Heather Miller on this week's Torah portion, Parashat Shemot, Exodus 1:1-6:1. Please visit to subscribe and follow on social media.

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