The Jewish People, cruelly subjugated by Pharaoh and the Egyptians, are reduced to subhuman slaves with no end in sight. G-d is nowhere to be found. They are resigned to their fate. Suddenly the situation changes [Shemot 2:23-25]: “The King of Egypt died. The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to G-d. G-d heard their moaning, and G-d remembered His covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. G-d saw (va’yar) the Children of Israel and G-d knew (va’yeda)”. Let’s zoom into the last verse. What did G-d see? What did G-d know?
The medieval commentators offer an array of suggestions. Rashi, commentator par excellence, suggests that “[G-d] directed His heart to them and did not hide His eyes from them.” A somewhat less esoteric explanation offered by a number of medieval commentators goes along the lines of “G-d saw what was going on above the surface and He saw what was going on below the surface”. Truth be told, the term “G-d saw” is not terribly difficult to understand. While His nation suffered, G-d, as it were, averted His Divine Eyes so as not to see their suffering. This kind of phenomenon is described explicitly later on in the Torah [Devarim 31:17]: “Then My anger will flare up against them, and I will abandon them and hide My countenance from them. They shall be ready prey; and many evils and troubles shall befall them.” Our Sages refer to this as “Hester panim”, or “Hiding of the [Divine] face”. Conversely, when the Torah tells us that “G-d saw the Children of Israel ”, it means to say that G-d came out from behind the veil and stood ready to redeem His nation. But what does the Torah mean when it says that “G-d knew”?
A fascinating interpretation is offered by Rabbi Abraham Borenstein in “Ne’ot Ha’Desheh”. Rabbi Borenstein, better known as the “Avnei Nezer”, after one of his more famous books on Jewish Law, lived in Sochaczew, Poland, in the nineteenth century. Rabbi Borenstein directs our attention to the Talmud in Tractate Eiruvin [19b]. The topic at hand is the blessing of Havdalah – “Separation” – recited in the Amida on Saturday night as Shabbat ebbs away. Havdalah is recited in order to separate between the holy Shabbat and the mundane Sunday. Our Sages rule that Havdalah should be inserted into the blessing that begins with the words “You have bestowed upon man knowledge”. The Talmud explains its decision by noting, “If there is no knowledge, then the concept of separation is meaningless”. The Talmud makes sense: To separate between two entities, data is required. To separate between two countries, one needs to know where the border lies. To separate between two concepts, be it between Socialism and Communism or between Shabbat and the other days of the week, one needs at least a rudimentary understanding of each of the concepts. Rabbi Borenstein applies this rule to the Jewish slaves in Egypt. Years of slavery had a cumulative effect on their national psyche. They had come to believe that slavery was their natural setting. They had lost their national pride and their sense of self-worth. A precondition to their redemption was their understanding that something was wrong, that their predicament was unnatural, and that they were worthy of freedom. When the Torah says “G-d knew”, it meant that G-d caused the Jewish People to understand the separation between where they were and where they needed to be.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak from Berditchev, a Hassidic Master who lived in the second half of the eighteenth century, writing in “Kedushat Levi”, offers an interpretation that is nearly the mirror image of Rabbi Borenstein’s interpretation. Whereas Rabbi Borenstein speaks about separation, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak speaks about unification. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak interprets the verb “to know” in its biblical sense, as it appears in [Bereishit 4:1] “Adam knew Eve, his wife”, referring to carnal knowledge. Applying this understanding, the term “G-d knew” means that “G-d became intimately fused with the Jewish people”. Not only did He witness their suffering, He empathized with their suffering. Their pain became His pain.
Prima facie, the explanations of Rabbi Borenstein and Rabbi Levi Yitzchak seem incommensurable. Nevertheless I suggest that the two men could be speaking about opposite sides of the same coin. Rabbi Borenstein’s explanation – that G-d caused the Jewish People to know – is based on interpreting the word “va’yeda” – literally “He knew” – as if it were written in the causative (hiph’il) tense, meaning “He caused the Jewish People to know”. Yet, Rabbi Borenstein’s explanation works equally well if the word “Va’yeda” is translated according to its simple meaning, “G-d knew”, or, rather, “G-d separated”. Between what entities did G-d “separate”? Before we proceed, some background is required. A Jewish wedding takes place in two phases. In the first phase, called “Kiddushin”, the groom places a ring on the finger of the bride and tells her “Behold, you are consecrated to me with this ring”. In the second phase of the wedding, called “Nissuin”, seven guests bless the bride and groom while they stand under the chuppah. While “Kiddushin” is typically translated as “engagement” and “Nissuin” is typically translated as “marriage”, these translations are borrowed from non-Jewish weddings. The literal translation of “Kiddushin” is “Sanctification” while “Nissuin” means “Elevation”. What is the connection between marriage and sanctification? About fifteen years ago I heard a talk by Rabbi Mosheh Lichtenstein on the difference between the concepts of “holiness” and “purity”. Rabbi Lichtenstein explained that holiness thrives in closed spaces, within boundaries. The holiest place on earth is the Holy of Holies in the Beit HaMikdash, a chamber with hardly enough room for the Ark of the Covenant. The Holy of Holies was entered only once a year, on Yom Kippur, and then only by the High Priest. Before the groom weds his bride, he “sanctifies” her. He draws boundaries. He separates her from every other woman in the world. She is special. He loves only her. He wants to share his world only with her. He wants to raise a family only with her. Only after he has “separated” her can he “elevate” her, can he take her into their home and get down to the business of building their lives together. Let’s return to Rabbi Borenstein. When the Torah says that “G-d knew”, it means that He “separated” the Jewish People from all other people of the world. It means that He considered them special. It means that He reiterated the treaty He made years earlier with Abraham: that He would return his descendants to the Land of Israel and there He would be their G-d. This separation was a prerequisite for their redemption. Rabb Levi Yitzchak, on the other hand, speaks not in terms of Kiddushin, but of Nissuin. After G-d had separated the Jewish People from all other nations on earth, He could draw them near to His Divine Presence. He would protect them. He would lead them. He would elevate them.
One of the most profound papers I have ever read was titled “Imagine: On Love and Lennon”, by Ze’ev Maghen. It begins with an assault on the song “Imagine”, by John Lennon, claiming that a world with “no countries, no religion”, a world in which everyone was the same was a world not worth living for. The paper is a treatise on the criticality of preferential love. In one sentence, if you cannot separate another person from the rest of humanity and elevate him above all others, then you can truly love no-one. Maghen writes, “Genuine and galvanizing love for “the other” is acquired most effectively and lastingly through a process which involves, first and foremost, love of self, then of family, then of friends, and then of community… and so on. It is via emotional analogy… that one becomes capable of executing a sort of “love leap”, a hyperspace transference of the strength and immediacy one retains for his favorite people, smack onto those who have no direct claim on such sentiments”. In today’s world of intersectionality, this concept is nearly taboo. But if it’s good enough for G-d, it should be good enough for us, too.
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5780
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, David ben Chaya, and Tehila bat Adi.
 Whether or not my family is descended from Rabbi Borenstein is a matter of debate.
 The Talmud refers to this blessing as “Birkat HaDa’at” – the “Blessing of Knowledge”.
 The article appeared in a magazine called “Azure”. The magazine has since become defunct and its website has shut down. Maghen later incorporated the article into a book called “John Lennon and the Jews:”.