This week we begin a new book – Shemos – as we read Parshas Shemos. In the parsha, we read of the beginning of the slavery of the Jews in Egypt. “And there arose a new king on Egypt, who didn’t know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). The medrash tells us that the Egyptian people came to Pharaoh and told him that they wanted him to take care of the “Jewish problem”. He told them that they were being foolish. “Until now we are alive only because of them (Joseph saved the entire country from famine), and now you want to threaten them? If not for Joseph, you wouldn’t even be alive!” When they saw that he wasn’t listening to them, they removed him from his throne for three months, until he agreed to do whatever they wanted.
There are two very important lessons that are apparent from this episode.
1) If Pharaoh, who eventually became a notorious tyrant, felt gratitude to Joseph to the point where he felt that he even gave up his kingdom for three months, that certainly shows us how important and basic the feeling of gratitude is. Certainly we, who are constantly showered with the kindness of Hashem, must constantly feel a debt of gratitude to Him.
2) We see how deep and powerful the emotions of man are, and how they can change. Pharaoh originally had the emotional strength to give up his own rights as a king just because he felt so strongly about having gratitude. Nevertheless, when he changed his mind, he turned into a tyrant who committed mass murder and torture. If this is true in a bad way, certainly this is true in a good way. A person can take any tendency they have, and change it to good. When we acknowledge that we have a weakness, the response is not “I know, but I can’t help it. It’s my nature!” Rather, we must realize that if we try to change it, we can! If Pharaoh was able to change himself to evil, then certainly we are able to change ourselves for good. As our sages tell us, “If one tries to improve, Hashem helps him to succeed.”