Did you ever notice how strange the redemption of our nation unfolds. We tend to think that it was preordained that we would be enslaved for a certain number of years and then when that time was up, an angel of God appeared to Moshe to set in motion God’s plans for redemption by the burning bush. But something happens beforehand. We are told that:
A long time after that, the king of Egypt dies. The Bnei Yisrael were groaning under the slavery and cried out and their cry for help from the slavery rose up to God.
וַיִּשְׁמַ֥ע אֱ-לֹהִ֖ים אֶת־נַאֲקָתָ֑ם וַיִּזְכֹּ֤ר אֱ-לֹהִים֙ אֶת־בְּרִית֔וֹ אֶת־אַבְרָהָ֖ם אֶת־יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽת־ יַעֲקֹֽב:
God heard their moaning and God remembered the covenant with Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov.
And then there’s one more pasuk before the story of the burning bush:
וַיַּ֥רְא אֱ-לֹהִ֖ים אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַיֵּ֖דַע אֱ-לֹהִֽים
God looked upon the Bnei Yisrael and God knew.
These are very difficult pesukim to understand. First, what triggers God’s response? Bnei Yisrael are groaning from their work specifically because the king of Egypt died. Well, what happened before the king of Egypt died? Was slave life acceptable beforehand? Why does the king’s death trigger such groaning by the Bnei Yisrael that forced a response by God? Secondly, how do we understand God’s response? What’s with all the verbs? God heard, God remembered the covenant, God saw and God knew. Are these different stages in God’s response? Are they different types of responses? But let me return to my basic question. Was redemption preordained or did it require a trigger? What if the king wouldn’t have died? What if the Bnei Yisrael didn’t groan under the weight of their slavery? Would the redemption have been delayed?
It is very hard to answer a “what if” question, but it seems that it was part of God’s plan that even if there was a set time for their redemption, God set in motion a series of events that led Bnei Yisrael to cry out and this triggered God’s multi-layered response.
The mefarshim (commentaries) provide a wide variety of suggestions as to the connection between the king’s death and the Bnei Yisrael’s groaning. Rashi suggests that Pharaoh didn’t die; rather, he was afflicted with tzara’at (leprosy) and he bathed in the blood of Jewish children, which caused the Bnei Yisrael to cry out. Ramban suggests that the Bnei Yisrael thought that life would get easier when a new Pharaoh was appointed, but their hopes were dashed and they groaned as an expression of their feelings of hopelessness. The Netziv suggests that they weren’t even allowed to cry before Pharaoh’s death. The Bnei Yisrael had the opportunity to cry only after his death when all of Egypt was involved in mourning the loss of their leader.
In any case, the clear message of the story is the power of prayer. God put in place an opportunity for Bnei Yisrael to cry immediately before the redemption begins to convey the importance of prayer in times of crisis and desperation and hopelessness. Yes, we would have been redeemed because of His covenant with our ancestors, but God may sometimes wait for us to pray to Him. God creates the world in a way that we need to pray to Him because prayer is an essential aspect of our service of God and it is especially essential even when life seems hopeless.
In fact, a story is told about Rav Yechezkel Abramsky who was born at the end of the 19th century in Russia. He later became the Av Beit Din of the London Beit Din, eventually made aliya and died close to 50 years ago. In 1928, he was arrested for spreading Torah in Russia and sentenced to five years in Siberia. A few years after his release he made a trip to New York and visited his old friend from Russia, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rav Yosef Yitzchak. He related to the Rebbe the following story from his time in Siberia: “One night, the morale in the barracks was especially low; everyone was complaining and venting about all their personal צרות (calamities), myself included. Eventually, we all fell asleep and when I woke up in the morning, I did what I do every morning, I said modeh ani - "מודה אני לפניך מלך חי וקיים שהחזרת בי נשמתי" and then I stopped and thought to myself: What am I thankful for? I have nothing. Not in physicality nor in spirituality. I don’t have a wife and children; I don’t have food. I don’t have Tallit and Tefillin and I don’t even have a siddur to daven with. I paused for a minute and thought what do I have left? And the answer was right in front of me "רבה אמונתך" – “The Russians took away everything from me, but I am left with one thing – the belief in You, Hashem, and Your belief in me; all I have left is אמונה – and for that I am thankful!” When the Lubavitcher Rebbe heard this story, he said what only a Rebbe can say. “It could be that your years in Siberia were worth it just so you could come out with this vort!” Again, I would never make such a claim, but what seems clear is that in our parsha, God created an opportunity for prayer immediately before the redemption to ingrain in our hearts and souls that when all seems lost and hopeless, it is not a time to run away from God but it is a time to cry out to God and to embrace God.
But I would argue that what’s more instructive than the fact that God responded is the nature of His response. He heard, He remembered, He saw and He knew. How do we understand this multi-layered response? There are different ways to interpret God’s response, but on a very simple level, each verb in God’s response reflects another layer of concern on God’s part. First, God heard the cries of their suffering and God remembered His covenant and His special relationship with our ancestors. But He did more than that. He saw and He knew. God took notice of what was happening. According to the Ibn Ezra, He saw the impact that the slavery had on the Bnei Yisrael outwardly and publicly and He also saw the impact that the slavery had on them privately, in their private lives, as we say in the haggada, “va’yaida Elokim zu prishut derech eretz.” The slavery wreaked havoc on their marital lives, as well. And there are so many different variations of what these two verbs mean in the mefarshim, but the common thread of the various explanations is that this pasuk describes a God who takes notice, and who probes and looks beneath the surface at what is happening to His people.
We can just read this story and say that it just tells you how wonderful God is, but then we would be missing the point. The reason why we remember the story of Egypt is to teach us how to care for the vulnerable and the underprivileged and the needy. Remember the stranger because we were strangers in Egypt. God’s response to our suffering informs us how to respond to the suffering of others.
First, God hears the cries. Even if they didn’t cry out to Him, they cried and He responded. Sometimes we see people in pain and maybe our inclination is to say, “Well, if they wanted help, they would come to me to ask for help.” If you see someone in pain, even if they are too embarrassed to approach you, proactively reach out to them and offer help. Next, God remembered the covenant with our ancestors. God took note of His relationship with us. And sometimes we forget that in dealing with others. Sometimes we forget that we are all connected, that we all are children of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, either biologically or spiritually. It’s so easy to focus on what divides us as a pretext to not helping someone in need, but God remembered and we also must remember what binds us.
But God does more. He saw. He noticed. He went out of his way to see what was going on. Sometimes we may respond to someone who cries out in pain, but we don’t take the time to proactively look around and see who is struggling, who is suffering, who needs a hello, or who needs a phone call, a text, a WhatsApp, or an invite for Shabbat? Are we looking?
Finally, do we try know like God knows? Do we try to look beneath the surface for the pain in others that is hidden and that is not so evident? Do we probe a little further when we see the signs in someone else that something is not right?
God shows us how it’s done. He listens for the pain even if nobody is asking Him for help. He focuses on the relationships He has with others and discounts those things that may divide us. He looks around to take notice of the vulnerable. And he looks for what’s beneath the surface. And He selects as a leader for His people someone who does just that. He selects Moshe Rabbenu who finds out that he is Jewish and feels connected to his people, he hears the suffering of his people so he goes out to help. And “vayar b’sivlotam” – he takes notice of their suffering when nobody else does. And when he sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, he understands the deeper implications of this behavior, that it reflects a corrupt, unjust society, one that Moshe rejects.
Yes, this parsha tells a story of how God not only redeems us but first requires us to reach out to Him, setting the stage for what our relationship with Him should look like. However, this parsha also tells us about ourselves, our mission and our goal on this earth not to live robotic halachically observant lives. Rather, we are challenged to live lives when we proactively listen, when we think about our relationships with others and what unites us, and when we learn how to notice those in pain and the deeper impact of this pain on their lives. May we inspire others to follow the footsteps of God and Moshe of listening, remembering, seeing and knowing as a means to heal our fractured world.