What a difference 59 years can make. Despite Jacob's insistence on being buried in Israel "Joseph remained in Egypt along with his father's family" (Breisheet 50:22). Whether he continued in his role of viceroy of Egypt or retired from political life the Torah does not say. Nonetheless it does appear Joseph did have time to enjoy his old age at ease spending precious time with his family. "Joseph saw Ephraim's grandchildren and the children of Menasheh's son Machir were also born on Joseph's lap" (50:23). Whereas Yaakov was the first person of whom it is recorded who had a relationship with his grandchildren Joseph had the fortune of playing with his great grandchildren. While little is recorded about his funeral - unlike the detailed description of his father's burial in Israel - his high status is attested to by the fact that like the Pharoah's of ancient Egypt Joseph "was embalmed and placed in a tomb in Egypt " (50:26). Yet a few short years later the Jewish people are singled out for high taxes, hard labour and persecution. By the time Moshe Rabbeinu was born, a scant 59 years after the death of Joseph, Jewish babies were being thrown in to the Nile .
What caused this tragic change of circumstances, one that would be our fate throughout Jewish history? The Biblical text reveals very little, hinting to us that anti-Semitism needs very little pretext or reason. What we are told is that "a new King arose who knew not Joseph" (1:8). While changes in leadership often bring major policy shifts surely such a radical change in government attitudes would need some sort of trigger.
"And the children of Israel were fertile and prolific, they increased abundantly and the land was filled with them" (Shemot 1:7). As long as the Jews were no more than Joseph's extended family - and as long as they lived in their own little ghetto far away from the capital, the Egyptians left them alone. Not that they particularly liked them "since all sheppard's are an abomination in Egypt "(Breisheet 46:34)- but at least no one took much notice of them. As the distinguished family of Yaakov grew and grew, fear of the unknown replaced rational thinking. No great leader emerged from the growing nation, no one to protect Jewish interests in the echelons of power. In fact the Torah describes a nameless faceless people; working harder and harder as they kept on multiplying.
What appears so tragic is that the anti-Jewish measures were based not on anything the Jewish people had done. There is not even a description of a possible sin for which to bring down Divine punishment. The elderly Jews amongst the populace who remembered and may have even personally known Joseph must have been in shock as they witnessed the increasing Jew -hatred. Nor does it appear their was religious discrimination - in fact our Sages teach that so "successfully" had the Jews integrated into Egyptian culture that they even stopped circumcising their children. Being that there was no way to distinguish a Jewish home from an Egyptian one, redemption was dependant on the Jews putting blood on their doorposts. So similar had Jews and Egyptians become that even G-d, kvyachol "needed" a way to determine from which homes would emerge the Jewish nation.
Yet fear of the unknown worried the Egyptian leadership. Can we really trust new immigrants? "Come let us deal wisely with them otherwise they may increase so much that if there is a war they will join our enemies and fight against us, and they will leave the land" (1:9). While the Jews were no threat to Egypt , Pharaoh worried that in case of some future war, with some unknown adversary, the Jewish people might side with the enemy. Even so, according to many commentaries the Egyptians did not fear that they would lose the war but rather in the context of the war the Jews would escape from Egypt . How sad that this fear would be the cause of so much misery. Our Sages tell us that only one in five Jews left Egypt . If 80% stayed behind after the miracles performed on their behalf how many would have left on their own volition even in the unlikely event that Pharaoh's fear of war would be borne out. Most likely there would have been no more than a handful of unassimilated Jews if that many.
Sefer Shemot is also known as Sefer HaGeulah the book of redemption. As the Ramban explains in his introduction to Shemot redemption is only complete with the building of a mishkan , a "home" in which the divine presence is manifest. This mishkan, described in great detail later on is Sefer Shemot served as the temporary home until the permanent home The Beit Hamikdash would be built in Jerusalem . Redemption the Torah teaches can only occur when the Jewish people are sovereign and united in their own land, where love and respect replace fear and mistrust, not only amongst Jews but amongst all nations of the world; "for My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations" (Isaiah 56:7). May that day come soon. Shabbat Shalom!