This week’s Torah portion begins with the rise of a new Pharoah in Egypt, and the subsequent enslavement and subjugation of the Jewish people under his regime. The verses relate that Pharaoh appointed tax collectors over the Jewish people and afflicted them with all kinds of hard manual labor. The next chapters tell the story of the enslavement of the Jewish people in Egypt, culminating with the verses telling of the beginning of the redemption process. “And it was in those days, that the King of Egypt died, and the Jewish people cried out because of their labor, and their cries went up before God, because of the labor. And God heard the cries, and He remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And God saw the children of Israel and He knew.”(Exodus 2:23-25)
The story of Exodus is among the most central events in Jewish history, and it is one that has much to teach us for our times. Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik, a noted Jewish thinker of the 20th Century, points out that the last verse of the above passage is seemingly redundant. It acknowledges that God both heard and knew the cries of the Jewish people. Doesn’t one know of a matter the moment he hears of it? If the Torah takes the opportunity to use both terms, it must be that there is a unique distinction between the meaning of “hearing” and “knowing” when it comes to the Divine.
Rav Soloveitchik’s insightful answer to this question not only solves the difficulty in the biblical text, but also provides a deeper understanding of the concept of prayer and true freedom. He explains that if we take a closer look at the verse, “…and their cries went up before God, because of the labor” we will notice that there is a specific mention regarding the source of the cries, i.e. the harsh labor was the catalyst for the Jewish people to cry out to God. Why is this important? In David Holzer’s book, The Rav Thinking Aloud on the Parsha, Rav Soloveitchik explains that this qualification is coming to teach an important lesson about the concept of slavery and freedom. Says The Rav,
“Slavery is not a monolithic concept, slavery has many expressions. There are many forms of enslaving, of taking a free human being and converting him into a bound man.”
The Jewish people suffered in Egypt from two forms of slavery; the first was the physical form of slavery of which they were consciously aware. This form of slavery caused them great pain and anguish, and so they cried out to God for relief. However, there was a second dimension to the enslavement– a spiritual enslavement –which was only subconsciously felt. It is important to note that this form of enslavement was not the reason for the cries of the people. The verse here is clear, the cries of the Jewish people were only a result of the harsh labor, the physical enslavement of which they had an acute awareness. (The Rav Thinking Aloud on the Parsha- Sefer Shemos, pg. 2, David Holzer)
It is with this concept that Rav Soloveitchik answers our original question, and discusses the matter of God both “hearing” and “knowing” of the cries of the Jewish people in Egypt. He explains that the seemingly redundant verse is not redundant at all; rather, its distinction is incredibly important and its message should serve as a source of comfort to every Jew who has ever turned to cry out to God in his hour of need. Writes The Rav,“We would have been the most unfortunate people if Hakadosh Baruch Hu had been guided by our prayer. Sometimes, we pray for things which are a menace to us and sometimes we don’t pray for the things that are of the utmost importance to us.” Man can become misguided and instead of praying for that which is truly crucial, he can get caught up in the trivial. It is God’s great kindness that he does not take cues from our cries, rather he takes it a step further and answers that which we truly need. During the story of Exodus, God heard the cries of the Jewish people and understood — he knew — that which even they themselves did not. Yes, the Jewish people needed relief from the physical enslavement. But it was the spiritual enslavement, of which the people themselves were not aware, that was truly hanging in the balance (The Rav Thinking Aloud on the Parsha- Sefer Shemos, pg. 2, David Holzer)
One of the most dramatic examples of the consequence of physical vs spiritual subjugation can be found in the life of Moses, one of the Jewish people’s greatest leaders. The verses in Deuteronomy 34: 5-6 tell of the death of Moses and his burial outside of the Land of Israel, in the land of Moab. The Midrash in Devarim Rabba shares a fascinating insight as to the reason why Moses was unable to be buried in the Land of Israel which so fittingly relates to our discussion of the concept of spiritual subjugation. The Midrash writes, “Moses said to God, ‘Master of the Universe, Joseph’s bones entered the land, but I do not enter the Land?’ The Holy One, blessed be He, replied, ‘He who acknowledged his land is buried in his land; he who did not acknowledge his land is not buried in his land.’ How do we know that Joseph acknowledged his land? His master’s wife said, ‘Look, he brought us a Hebrew man…’(Genesis 39:14) And Joseph did not deny it, rather, he said, ‘I was stolen away from the Land of the Hebrews’ (40: 15). You Moses, who did not acknowledge your Land, will not be buried in your land. How so? Yitro’s daughters said, ‘An Egyptian man saved us from the shepherds…’ (Exodus 2:19) and Moses heard this and remained silent. Therefore, he was not buried in his land” (Devarim Rabba 2:8) Joseph identified as a Hebrew and was spiritually free, even though he lived a life of physical enslavement in the House of Potiphar. Moses, who was raised a free man in the House of Pharaoh, nevertheless experienced spiritual subjugation to the point where he did not identify himself as a Jew when presented to a stranger. It was this failing that destined Moses to his final resting place far from the home of the Jewish people. Physical freedom is a well-known value the world over, but we cannot underestimate the power and significance of spiritual freedom.
During the story of Exodus, for the Jewish people to reach their potential and be truly free they needed relief from the bonds of both the physical and spiritual enslavement. God knew this, and instead of listening to their cries he answered that which he knew would allow them to fulfill their national destiny. We must make it our mission to seek out spiritual freedom no matter where life takes us, yet take comfort in the fact that whether or not we are able to express it, God will always provide the relief that we truly need.