Parshas Shemos - What's New?
by Rabbi Dovid Green
This week's parsha begins recounting the enslavement and exploitation of the
Children of Yisrael. The political atmosphere changes from Egypt welcoming
Yaakov and his family as dignitaries, to hatred and suspicion. The great
commentaries remark that the Egyptian exile is a paradigm for our own exile
from Israel which began with the destruction of the second Holy Temple in
approximately 70 A.C.E. This means that the ideas in the parsha deserve
careful study as they are pertinent to our own situations.
In Exodus (1:8) the Torah writes "And a new king arose over Egypt who did
not know Yosef." It is automatically clear that there is more to the story
than meets the eye. Who wouldn't have known Yosef? Without Yosef
interpreting the dreams for Pharaoh and preparing for the 7 years of famine,
there would be no Egypt left. In our times someone like Yosef would have
sports arenas, libraries, avenues, and shopping centers named after him.
Children in elementary schools would make plays about him, and we would all
have a long weekend commemorating his birthday. That is to say the least.
Rashi explains that "he (Pharaoh) made himself as if he didn't know Yosef."
Incidentally, this illustrates the point which is brought out in Pirkei Avos
(Chapters of the Fathers). The mishna (Chapter 2, mishna 3) states "Be
careful with ruling authorities, for they only befriend people for their own
needs. They appear as friends while they are benefiting, but they don't
stand up for a person in his time of difficulty." Of course Pharaoh knew
Yosef, but it was no longer in his best political interest to embrace Yosef
or his family whose population had grown out of proportion with his own
The wise king Solomon said (Ecclesiastes 1:9) "There is nothing new under
the sun." The meaning is that in the category of things "under the sun," in
the physical world, nothing is truly new. Everything is just a new
configuration of something which has already been done. However, our sages
say "under the sun nothing is new, but above the sun, beyond the limitations
of the physical world, everything is new." In the morning liturgy (in the
blessings preceding the Sh'ma) we refer to G-d as "The One Who renews the
creation every day constantly." Behind the scenes is constant renewal.
What's new? Everything! This is reality. Unfortunately, it is difficult to
be in touch with that reality. It takes great faith to be aware of it, and
courage to internalize and live by it. On the other hand, what is the
Madison Ave. tells us it has the answer. Commercials tell us this is new,
and that. Everyone is running after what's new like big kids in a toy store.
People put so much time and effort into acquiring and maintaining their
toys. Never was a society so in debt for non-essential things. Are we any
The Talmud tells us that the soul is a part of G-d which is placed into a
physical existence. The analogy is of a princess who elopes with a common
villager. Anything he brings her can never satisfy her, because she is used
to living as a princess. When he offers her all the boiled potatoes she can
eat, she begins to cry. So too, the soul is accustomed to closeness to G-d.
When it comes to this world it craves things which it had been accustomed to
before. We hear the voice, and we attempt to fulfill its wishes. We give it
fun. Bun gee jumping! Amusement parks, concerts, movies, and chocolate! All
the soul does is sigh. She's always left wanting. How can we satisfy her
In the words of the Sh'ma (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) which we recite twice a day,
we find the answer. "And these words which I command you today should be on
your heart." Rashi comments that we should view the commandments as
something new which everyone runs to greet. The commandments of the Torah
are spiritual lights clothed in physical clothing. They are the "food" of
the soul. They are our way of maintaining our closeness to a spiritual G-d
in this physical world.
People get excited about new kings and new things. The student of the Torah
understands that there is really nothing new under the sun. However, the
commandments are not from "under the sun." They are performed under the sun,
but their source is from "the One Who renews the work of creation
constantly, each day." They are the only source of satisfaction for the
soul. They are the only things which calm the voice inside. May we all merit
to taste the newness and fulfillment of the commandments of the Torah.
Text Copyright © 1996 Rabbi Dovid Green and
Project Genesis, Inc.