A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know about Joseph. [Exodus 1:8]
There are two words that repeat themselves in this week’s Torah portion, Exodus: knowing and believing.
In our modern world, knowing comes first. “To know you is to love you” was a phrase written by artists from Bobby Vinton to Stevie Wonder. The idea is simple: I can’t love you until I know you.
Then comes Pharoah to reveal the lie of knowledge. How could anybody not know what Joseph did in Egypt? The cornflakes you ate at breakfast came from Joseph. The money that paid for your new palace came from Joseph. The subjects who now work only for you was because of Joseph. So, it wasn’t that Pharaoh did not know Joseph. The emperor simply made a decision to deny Joseph and the former’s commitment to help Jacob’s family.
Indeed, the Torah uses the word “know” in a range of meanings that have nothing to do with information. A man who knows a woman is an allusion to sexual relations. “The nations will know that they are human” is not exactly new information, rather a divine lesson that they will fall and disappear.
In Judaism, our sages rarely claimed to know. They relayed their words from their elders, a tradition that stemmed from Moses on Mount Sinai. Often, the sages would announce that they had gotten it wrong. Rabbi Nachum Percowiz was a leading scholar in the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem until his death in 1986. He gave his life to Torah, whether in Europe, Japan or Shanghai – all posts on his refugee map during World War II.
After the war, Rabbi Percowiz started again teaching children and young adults the lessons from his rabbis. He gladly acknowledged his fallibility. It would not be rare for him to come to class in the morning and announce to his students to discard the previous day’s lessons. He explained that some of his conclusions could not be supported.
Then there is a word with only one meaning: faith. In this week’s Torah portion, Exodus, the word is used repeatedly, sometimes in consecutive sentences. Faith was a theme in the week-long argument between G-d and Moses, the latter assigned to liberate the Israelites from Egypt. Moses was skeptical: “Look at me,” he cried. “I am a frail stuttering 80-year-old, nearly 70 years in exile, and for much of that time a fugitive. Now, I found some refuge far away in the desert of Midian.”
Moses answered and said, “Behold they will not believe me, and they will not heed my voice, but they will say, ‘The Lord has not appeared to you.’ ” [Exodus 4:1]
Notice Moses’ order. First, the Israelites will not believe. Then, they will not hear me. It should be the other way around.
There is a vital message in this: If you have no belief in yourself, you will not hear anything. The Israelites, Moses argued, do not believe they will be saved; so, what’s the use in talking to them?
Moses was right. G-d’s first miracle would have to be to instill belief in the Jews that they will be saved. Then, enter Moses.
Sometimes, there is the lethal combination of knowledge and belief in man. The common expression is “I believe that he knows.” This has formed the basis of blind devotion to a regime – whether Rome or its satellites. G-d is not relevant in the geopolitical equation. The superpowers run the world. We must listen to them no matter what.
For they are a nation devoid of counsel, and they have no understanding. [Deuteronomy 32:28]
Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman was one of the greatest sages in Europe before World War II, a leading student of whom we know as the Chafetz Chayim. Like Moses, Rabbi Wasserman was a fugitive, fleeing the pogroms in Czarist Russia as well as the marauding armies of World War I. In the 1920s, he was allowed to leave the Soviet Union and established a yeshiva in Poland, where he also became a leader of Agudath Israel.
When the Chafetz Chayim, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, died, Rabbi Wasserman gave a eulogy: “How do we know when an era ends?” His answer was that an era ends with the passing of a righteous man without another man worthy of replacing him. There was nobody who could replace the Chafetz Chayim.
Rabbi Wasserman was prescient. In the new age, Hitler would move from persecution to genocide. In July 1941, the rabbi and 12 colleagues were captured by Lithuanian collaborators of Germany. Like more than a million other Jews in the Soviet Union, they were taken to a pit in the forest and shot dead.
Rabbi Wasserman had been ready for his end. Moments before he embarked on his last march, he proclaimed his belief that he was about to perform the highest commandment of G-d – a sacrifice to save the rest of the Jewish people. Their final act, he told the other rabbis, would be to repent to ensure that their sacrifice would be pure.
We are now fulfilling the greatest mitzvah. With fire she [Jerusalem] was destroyed and with fire she will be rebuilt. The very fire which consumes our bodies will one day rebuild the Jewish people. 
Given Rabbi Wasserman’s definition, it is clear that we have entered a new era. The State of Israel no longer exists as a cohesive unit. The borders are porous. The government no longer functions. The military has no bombs, bullets or even boots and exists on handouts from the United States. The Supreme Court no longer pretends to look at the law books. Man, as predicted, has betrayed our false beliefs.
That leaves G-d. The fact that 3,000 Hamas butchers actually returned to the Gaza Strip rather than join their colleagues in the West Bank or in the northern Negev was beyond miraculous. The fact that Hezbollah didn’t walk through unopposed from Lebanon to Haifa came only from G-d. The fact that Jews around Jerusalem, Kfar Saba and Ranaana were not flooded by Arab and Persian gunmen was not because the enemy was lazy.
There’s no way we would have known that then. The key is belief. That’s what Moses understood, and G-d agreed. And so, the end of the era in Egypt was not the liberation; it was the moment the Jews believed that G-d cared.
And the people believed, and they heard that the Lord had remembered the children of Israel and that He saw their affliction, and they kneeled and prostrated themselves. [Exodus 4:31]
King David in Psalms also concluded that belief precedes knowledge. His message was meant for the most ignorant and callous. Today, they might be found in the Cabinet room, Supreme Court, GHQ, university or broadcast studio.
Understand, you most boorish of the people and fools. When will you gain intelligence. Will He Who plants the ear not hear or will He Who forms the eye not see? Will He who chastises nations not reprove? [He is] the One Who teaches man knowledge. [Psalms 94:8-10]
1. “HaGaon HaRav Simcha Wasserman, zt”l, and Hagaon HaRav Moshe Chodosh, zt”l, Remembered.”Five Towns Jewish Home. October 11, 2018.]