Continents have been ravaged by tyrants. Countries have been decimated by despots. People have been led like sheep to slaughter. They have been tortured, maimed, executed and controlled in a cruel, phlegmatic manner — all so that someone could garner power.
One can be born in a country that’s free with equal rights or in a dictatorship where all do as they are told. It seems that for the 7.5 billion people on this planet it’s a matter of chance, a roll of the dice. And there’s nothing that they can do about it. One can be born in North Korea or in the United States. The choice isn’t theirs.
But the Torah teaches us differently.
Pharaoh was the absolute ruler of ancient Egypt. He made himself into a god-like figure (Rashi, Shemos 7:15). The Egyptian empire was the most powerful at the time. He was a true king in every sense of the word. Whatever he said was law — period. Dissent was impracticable.
Egypt owed a prodigious debt of gratitude to Yosef. As the viceroy he single-handedly saved the kingdom. As we know, at that time the planet was stricken by an excruciating famine. Mass starvation and economic calamity was the unavoidable fate.
Yosef devised a plan putting together an operation that was executed smoothly with precise logistics and organization. As a result of his efforts not only did the Egyptians survive but they also thrived in the face of this famine. They became the provider of all necessities in that difficult time.
So, many years later, when the Egyptian people approached him requesting that he subjugate the Jews, because of his gratitude, he emphatically refused. In his blood and bones Pharaoh internalized that Egypt as they knew it would be — a collapsed heap of rubble without Yosef. Therefore, he wasn’t willing to be an ingrate and subjugate his people. And when Pharaoh, the king of the entire civilized world, refuses, that is the end of the conversation.
Not so, in this case, because the people weren’t interested in that gratitude and etiquette. Au contraire, the Jews had to be corralled, the danger that they presented, eradicated. He refused so they deposed him from his reign for three months until he reneged. Only when he agreed was he reinstalled. “A new King arose that didn’t know Yosef” (Shemos Rabbah 1:8).
In other words, it was it was the same king, the same Pharaoh. But, Pharaoh acted as if he didn’t know Yosef. As if he felt no gratitude for what he did.
No matter who is in charge. No matter what type of government it is — a dictatorship, autocracy, democracy, or a republic — the governing class can’t do anything without the people’s consent. John Lennon once remarked: “People have power. They don’t even know it.” This is why in this week’s portion Yaakov consults his family before leaving Lavan. He presents an entire campaign outlining his reasoning (Bereishis 31:4-13). One would think that their departure was a fait accompli. Lavan was manipulative, ghoulish, intrusive and duplicitous. Separation from this abusive relationship was a no-brainer. Nevertheless, Yaakov understood that without the acquiescence of his family it wasn’t going to happen.
One should always make sure that the people are on their side because that is where the true power lies. JN
Rabbi Yakov Bronsteyn is a senior lecturer at Phoenix Community Kollel and a podcaster.