A phrase in the first reading at Mass today caught my attention. It was from one of those stories that you’ve heard since you were little– the kind of Bible story that, upon hearing it, immediately conjures up visions of illustrations from the children’s Bible of your past. It was the beginning of the story of Moses.

For some reason, the first line of the reading, even though I had heard it countless times before, sent my mind spinning.

“Then a new king, who knew nothing of Joseph, came to power in Egypt” (Ex 1:8).

We all know what follows. This new Pharaoh, unaware that Joseph had saved his country, decides there are too many Israelites in Egypt and something needs to be done about it. How many years passed between Joseph and Moses? I’m not going to get into trying to date the various bible stories. Suffice to say, enough time lapsed for this new king to be clueless about his past. To be clueless about a huge famine, a guy who could read dreams, and the miraculous survival of Egypt and the surrounding lands, thanks to said guy who could read dreams.

He is ignorant of the past, and look what happens. His world consists of him, his throne, and his country at the present. Forget the fact that he is living as a king in Egypt at that moment because Joseph saved the entire country. Forget the fact that he owes the Israelites his kingship — and his very existence. Nope, he doesn’t realize all of that. He is ignorant of what came before him. All that matters is that which surrounds him at the present and what he can do about it.\

Moses, on the other hand, was very aware of who and what came before him. He must have known the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or else God’s reference to them when He spoke to Moses (Ex 3:6) would have been pointless. Eventually, Moses wrote down the history of Israel, reminding the people of who they were and from whence they came. It is only in knowing their history that the Israelites could solidify in their minds that they were the chosen people of God. That’s is why the Torah is so intensely sacred to the Jews, and that is why the Psalmist praises the Law (Ps 1:2; 19:7; 119). The Torah gave the people their history and thus, their identity.

Open a history book. Find out who came before you. My generation is a self-centered generation. All that matters to us is our iPods, our internet, and our cell phones. We go through life staring into emptiness, listening to noise, lost in our navels. We think we have all the answers, when we haven’t even started asking the questions. We’re little Pharaohs, only caring about the present and what people can do for us now, instead of seeing how they’ve helped us become who we are.

Thankfully, God brought greatness despite the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart. He will do amazing things despite our selfishness, too… if we can find a Moses open enough to listen.