Between the Lines—Sh'mot

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Andy Shugerman

Exodus Rabbah 1:36

וירא אלהים את בני ישראל וידע אלהים (שמות ב) ידע הקב"ה שעליו לגאלם למען שמו בעבור הברית שכרת עם האבות, וכן הוא אומר ויזכור אלהים את בריתו.

...וידע אלהים, ידע שהן עתידין לומר (שמות כב) זה אלי. ריב"ל אמר ראה שעתידין לומר (שמות לב) אלה אלהיך ישראל, וידע אלהים, שעתידים להקדים נעשה לנשמע.

"God saw the Children of Israel and God knew" (Exod. 2:25). God realized that He must redeem them for the sake of His Name and the covenant He had made with their forefathers, as it says, "And God remembered His covenant"(Exod. 2:24).

" . . . and God knew." He knew that they would later say: "This is my God!" (Exod. 15:2). R. Joshua b. Levi said: He saw that they would say, "This [Golden Calf] is thy God, O Israel" (Exod. 32: 4). "And God knew"-that they would later give precedence to [the statement] "we will do" before "we will understand" (Exod. 24:7).

Many of us have periods in our lives when we mostly feel God's absence rather than a sense of divine presence. Such experiences of feeling bereft can range from a seemingly trivial void in one's life to the physical, psychological, and spiritual suffering that Israel endured in Egyptian slavery. So it's natural that questions arise when we think about these verses quoted from Exodus chapter 2. In particular, the midrash above records several attempts to comprehend how and why God suddenly reemerges after many chapters of silence by probing what God's perspective may have been at that moment.

Perhaps the most important question underlying this midrash relates to the verbs that describe God's reaction to Israel's "cry for help" (Exod. 2:23). What does it mean that God "remembered," "saw," and "knew" in these verses? We must first recall that God foretold to Abraham that his "offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years" (Gen. 15:13). The midrash posits that the people's "groaning" triggers God's memory to uphold the promise to redeem Abraham's descendants from their oppression, a process that begins immediately with Moses and the Burning Bush episode.

The subsequent interpretations imagine that God anticipates future events in Israel's growth as a nation: their recognition of God as Redeemer at the splitting of the Reed Sea, their regression into idolatry with the Golden Calf, and their faithful acceptance of God's commandments at Sinai. This short litany seems to prefigure the cliché that "seeing is believing"—even as the Burning Bush and the Golden Calf represent the opposing adage that "nothing is quite as it seems." Such a juxtaposition conveys a subtle rabbinic lesson about the early history of Israel's covenant with God.

Partnerships of all kinds require a degree of mutuality, a sense that each party values and understands the other because of a shared destiny, even when circumstances obscure that common bond. Just as God inexplicably "disappears" in the biblical narrative, only to return as Israel's Redeemer and Revealer, so too do the people recover from the Golden Calf episode with their embrace of the laws that will make them into a "kingdom of priests." This midrash teaches its audience to look deeper and beyond the present situation, whatever it may be, in assessing God's role in the world. Indeed, our covenant with God has only required more of us as the eras of biblical miracles and kings have given way to modern science and citizenship. May we continue to emulate God in creating a more just, peaceful, and democratic world.