Friday, April 21, 2006

The deathless king of Egypt?

I love it when I find that the thoughts which trouble me, troubled, too, our sages.

For instance, consider the identification of the Pharoh of the Exodus as "a new king" [Exodus 1:8] Could the verse be any clearer? It says: New king! And the next words drive home the point saying plainly that this new king "did not know Yosef."

Yet, on Sotah 11A, the plain point seems lost on Shmuel a fourth century sage, who insists that "only [the king's] decrees were new," and as the Gemarah explains a bit further down on the page, "[the king] only seemed like one who did not know Joseph at all."

Without detriorating into dramatics, let me just apologize to the the poor woman who taught me Shmuel's gloss back in Grade 4. I am sure I caused her great suffering. I suppose I asked the same questions that you ask. "Why," I am sure I demanded,"did the Torah tell us that this was a new king if he was nothing of the sort?" And why," I am sure I added," did God grant such a long life to someone as evil as Pharoh?"

These objections, of course, were shared by Rav, also a fourth century sage. Rav, also on Sotah 11A, says Exodus 1:8 refers to a genuinely new king, and his view is ratified, 1400 years later, by Samson Repahael Hirsch who says the new king was an outsider, perhaps even a non-Egyptian, who had recently taken the throne by force. In fact, Samson Rephael Hirsch makes no mention of Shmuel's opinion at all and I remember well how satisfied I was to see that R' Hirsch had rejected Shmuel's rejection of the verse's plain meaning. But none of this is taught by elementary school teachers who, as a class, seem to prefer the magic and mystery of Shmuel over Rav's common sense. Our kids come home with only the most superstitious views, and no effort is made to introduce them to the sages who frowned on such irrationality.

Anyway, the point fo this post is to share the good news that Shmuel's view really wasn't irrational at all.

This morning, I found a remarkable Maharal. The Maharal agrees that it's impossible for Pharoh's lifespan to stretch from Joseph to Moses, but saves Shmuel from mockery and ridicule by asserting that in no way should Shmuel's statment be construed to mean that he thought Joseph and Moses knew the same king. Shmuel, instead, meant simply that Moses's Pharoh was a decendant of Joseph's Pharoh, a member of the same royal line.

The argument between Rav and Shmuel, says the Maharal is not whther or not Joseph and Moses knew the same king, but about whther or not the kings they knew belonged to the same family. Shmuel thought the kingdom was intact' Rav thought Moshe's Pharoh was a usurper, and unrealted to the one who reigned in Joseph's time.

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