Parshas Shemos begins with an increasingly paranoid and oppressive Egyptian Pharaoh who does not know Yosef and proceeds to enslave and then attempt to exterminate the Jews. The germ of the problem can be found in the statement "Asher Lo Yada at Yosef", the new Pharaoh did not know Yosef.
Could it really mean that he had no idea who Yosef was? That seems unlikely, given that Yosef had died not that long ago, that he had been Egypt's second most powerful man, and that he had overseen the physical salvation and political and sociological transformation of Egypt. But rather it was a Pharaoh who did not know Yosef, his Hebrew name, only his Egyptian one, Tzafnat Paneach.
What was so significant about Yosef's hebrew name? The significance, as I said last week, is in the meaning. Yosef means to increase. And what is the source of that increase, the source is Godly. In his dealings with Pharaoh, Yosef had always stated that his achievements were achieved through God. It was God who sent the dream to Pharaoh. God who had sent the interpretation and prepared the remedy for it. And where to the old Pharaoh, Yosef was an emissary sent by God. To the new Pharaoh, there had been no God or Yosef, only Tzafnat Paneach, a man who had made some genuine national contributions, but was now dead, and his descendants and relatives had become a major problem.
What was it that touched off Pharaoh's paranoia over the Jews? The Torah tells us, that it was their numbers. The numbers of the Jews had increased greatly. And that made them a threat, because Pharaoh did not understand why they were increasing, because he did not know Yosef... did not know that their increase was a divine blessing.
The same Pharaoh who did not understand that Egypt's alternating increase in wheat and famine were of divine origin, did not understand that the increasing numbers of Jews, as the family of Jacob was being transformed into a nation, was of divine origin too. He was the Pharaoh who did not know Yosef and whose view was purely materialistic.
From a materialistic standpoint, the increasing number of Jews were a threat and an opportunity. Seeing them in materialistic terms, he chose to exploit them in a crudely materialistic way, by turning them into slaves. Since Pharaoh saw wealth as coming not from G-d, but from his economic system, more slaves would mean more prosperity.
And since the numbers of Jews were a problem, he addressed it in materialistic terms. First Pharaoh thought that the numbers of Jews were growing because of the unusual virility of the men, so he subjected them to harsh slavery. And when their numbers continued to increase, he decided it must be the fertility of the Jewish women, and attempted to wipe out the males, and leave the females so that Egyptians would marry the surviving girls and breed in large numbers. Yet both plans failed, for as Shifra and Puah told him, the Jewish women were not like Egyptian women. Beterem Tavoh Lachem Hameyaledet Veyaladu, even before the midwife comes to them, they give birth. Like living things, they are not dependent on the midwife, only on G-d.
At each stage both Pharaohs were guilty of fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of the events going on around them, because they did not know Yosef, they did not know that the increase in all things comes from G-d. And in turn G-d demonstrated it to them by turning them into the mechanisms of their own destruction.
Every action taken by the Pharaohs created Moshe as the man he would become. Because of Pharaoh's decree, Moshe's parents were separated. Because of his attack on newborn Jewish baby boys, Moshe was cast into the Nile and wound up in Pharaoh's own home. Because of Pharaoh's continued oppression of the Jews, Moshe was forced to fight for them and then flee into exile. And so at each turn, Pharaoh's own cruelty made Moshe into the man that he was.
And once Moshe arrived in Egypt, each of Pharaoh's actions would perpetuate the plagues and rain further punishment down on Egypt. By this means Pharaoh's own arrogance and refusal to know who Yosef was, who had fed Egypt and made it great, who had shown his predecessors the future and who had made the nation prosperous and the Jews numerous-- would become the tool of his own destruction.
The question is often asked why G-d told Moshe to only ask Pharaoh for a trip of three days to worship G-d. Did G-d expect Moshe to lie to Pharaoh? And what was the point of such a charade.
Moshe's request to Pharaoh was indeed sincere. Because it was only in Pharaoh's power to grant the Jews a trip of three days. Pharaoh could not free the Jews from an exile that had been decreed by G-d. Only G-d himself could do that. Nor could the Jews on their own go beyond that three days.
Had Pharaoh agreed to Moshe's proposal at any stage, it would not have been an agreement that lasted beyond those 3 days. Past those 3 days, at Har Sinai, only G-d could have truly freed them from Egypt through the acceptance of his laws and his Godliness. And all of Pharaoh's legions would not have stood in His way, just as they did not stand in His way at the Yam Suf.
To increase their freedom beyond those 3 days, to take them out of Egypt once and for all, was not something that either Pharaoh or Moshe could do. It was something that G-d alone could do. Thus every single plague that Moshe raised his staff for failed to move Pharaoh to actually fully consent to the redemption. And every time Pharaoh agreed the resulting promises proved to be empty. Only when G-d himself "walked" the streets of Egypt, were the Jews taken out of Egypt with no one to stand in the way.
Yosef's original message to Pharaoh had been that G-d increases a nation's prosperity and takes it away as he sees fit, and that the wise ruler attunes himself to G-d. It was a message that that Pharaoh had understood, but that his successors had discarded, instead choosing to become rulers who did know Yosef or his G-d. And by forgetting the source of Egypt's blessings, they were instead punished with curses that emerged from their own actions.
And thus Egypt's rulers were forced to learn, that just as G-d could turn prosperity into famine, he could turn water into blood, send reptiles from the water to the land, place wild animals into the cities while destroying tame animals, raise the dust from the earth while bringing down fire and ice from the sky, bring night during the day and selectively kill only the first born, and halt the waves of the seas and then bring them down again. This was the G-d of Yosef who could undo all materialistic forms to show that Yosef, that increase in all materialistic things comes from him.