And a new king arose on Mitzrayim who did not know Yosef (Shemos 1/8)
According to one opinion in Gemara Sotah, 11a, this pasuk is not to be understood literally as, “A new king began to rule over Mitzrayim,” rather, the pasuk tells us that the ruling king renewed his decrees, hischadaish gezairosov. Meaning, the old king who ruled during the times of Yosef acted as if he was a new king.
The Gemara asks, according to this, how can one understand the second half of the pasuk, “... who didn’t know Yosef”? The Gemara answers that he actually remembered Yosef but he acted as if he didn’t remember him.
Zera Shimshon asks. What does it mean that Pharaoh “renewed his decrees”? According to the pesukim, it doesn’t seem that Pharaoh reactivated old decrees that had lain dormant but rather he made new decrees against Bnei Yisroel, like making them build the cities of Pissom and Ramsais. We don’t find that they built cities in the past, so this was a new decree. What does Chazal mean when they say that Pharaoh “renewed his decrees”?
Secondly, all the mitzrim, Egyptians, and even the whole world, knew that Yosef ruled under Pharaoh. So what does it mean that Pharaoh made believe that he didn’t remember him? If this would be made known to the public, he would have been the laughingstock of Mitzrayim and the whole world!
Even more so, if the intent of Chazal was that Pharaoh pretended that he did not remember Yosef, the pasuk should have been written; “And a new king rose to power who did not remember Yosef” and not, “who did not know Yosef”!
Zera Shimshon answers these questions in the light of an idea found in Assara Maamoros. It was not incidental that Hashem orchestrated that Yosef would rule over Mitzrayim before the mitzrim ruled over Bnei Yisroel and enslaved them. Hashem chose to first have Yosef rule so he would acquire all of the mitzrim as slaves. Therefore, when Bnei Yisroel eventually were forced to work for the mitzrim they were not technically owned by them because of the halacha that says, “Whatever a slave owns, is owned by his master, mah shekonno avdo kanno rabbo. Since the mitzrim belonged to Yosef, Bnei Yisroel also belonged to Yosef and his descendants!
However, if Yosef would not have bought all of the mitzrim, then later on Bnei Yisroel would have become real slaves to the mitzrim. Bnei Yisroel would have been so assimilated in the mitzrims’ culture that they would not have been able to be redeemed and purified of their tumah.
Pharaoh understood all of this and wanted to continue to rule over Bnei Yisroel, and have them enslaved to him forever. The problem was, though, that they were not legally slaves and Pharaoh understood that they would be redeemed at some point. Therefore Pharaoh tried to challenge and invalidate the original rule of Yosef, which would cancel Yosef’s acquisition of the mitzrim that took place at the time of the great famine and Bnei Yisroel would legally belong to the mitzrim, so that they would never be able to be redeemed.
Pharaoh thought he could accomplish this by renewing the old decree that a slave cannot rule over Mitzrayim, and to apply this law to Yosef who was called a slave. Like it is written; and there, with us, was a Hebrew person, a slave to the master of the butchers. This is the decree that Pharaoh renewed.
Pharaoh’s plan, though, was foolish because after Yaakov and the shevatim came down to Mitzrayim, everyone knew that Yosef was really not a slave, but simply kidnapped from his land. Therefore, according to Egyptian law, Yosef was suitable to be a ruler and he legally owned all of the mitzrim.
So now we see that when Chazal said, Pharaoh made himself as if he did not know Yosef, they meant that Pharaoh pretended as if Yosef was really a slave, and not a free person, and therefore was not able to be a ruler in Mitzrayim.
However, it is still unclear why the mitzrim would believe Yosef was really a slave once they heard Yaakov call him, “my son” when Yaakov came down to Mitzrayim, proving that Yosef had in fact been kidnapped from his land and therefore was not a slave.
We can answer this question in the light of the halacha that is written in Babba Basra. A person, who says that a specific boy is his son, is believed and cannot retract this testimony. However, the Shulchan Aruch paskens, that the father is not believed in every situation. If there is a personal benefit to the one testifying, for instance he will be exempt from some type of tax, the father is not completely believed and he is able to retract his testimony.
Therefore, Pharaoh claimed that Yosef really was a slave, like everyone thought before Yaakov and the shevatim came down to Mitzrayim. The fact that Yaakov called Yosef his son is not a good proof against this because Yaakov might have said it only in order to be able to get food during the famine. Therefore, Pharaoh argued that Bnei Yisroel were really slaves and there should be no way for them to go free.