Parshat Va’era: Choosing to Know God

“And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out My hand over Egypt and bring out the Children of Israel from their midst” (Shemot 7:5).

If we look back on the Book of Bereishit, the main plot points revolve about people: Adam, Chava, Noach, Avraham, Rivkah, Leah, Yaakov, etc. God is certainly present in the story, but besides a number of promises that God makes but has yet to fulfill, God seems more like a spectator than a main player.

It’s almost as if we didn’t get to know God in Bereishit; but from the moment that Moshe meets God at the burning bush, God steps out of the shadows and is suddenly present, active, and standing at center stage. Suddenly, it seems that God wants to be known to the world.

Is it really true that God is unknown at this point in history? The concept of deities certainly existed, but the God of the Hebrews, as Moshe calls Him, is seemingly not yet a household name. When Moshe and Aaron first approach Pharaoh, Pharaoh’s reply is telling: 

“I do not know the Lord, nor will I let Israel go” (Shemot 5:2).

Seemingly in response to Pharoah’s lack of awareness of God, God says the following to Moshe and Aaron before their second visit to Pharoah:

“And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out My hand over Egypt and bring out the Israelites from their midst” (Shemot 7:5).

We see the same motive at the plague of blood, as Moshe speaks to Pharaoh:

“Thus says the Lord, ‘By this you shall know that I am the Lord. See, I shall strike the water in the Nile with the rod that is in my hand, and it will be turned into blood’” (Shemot 7:17).

So we finally arrive at our burning question: why does God suddenly want to be known? And why is Egypt the vehicle through which God wants to be known?

Let’s answer the second question first: Egypt is the ideal stage for God to be known. At the time that our story takes place, Egypt is the cultural, ideological, and military leader of the world. Just as Pharaoh ruled the land, his idolatrous conceptions of divinity filled the minds of the Egyptians. So by breaking Pharaoh and Egypt, God fractures those ideologies as well. 

But why is God suddenly so desperate to be known? Does God have an ego problem? Is God looking for fame and fortune? Listen to this quote from psychologist Michael Schreiner:

The unconscious fear that seems to always be lurking in the background is that if we aren’t understood it will be as if we never existed.”

This statement is of course about us, not God. But it can help us to understand a very deep idea. God wants to be known in order that God can exist, so to speak. Now, I’m not saying I believe that God’s existence is dependent on us; I believe that we are dependent on God’s existence.  

But as the Sages tell us, A king without a nation is no king. God may be the Cause of all existence, but if no one knows God, then it’s as if God doesn’t exist. Though God’s objective existence is eternal and unchanging, I can decide, or not, to what extent God is present in my life. 

This point is illustrated by the famous story of the Kotzker Rebbe, who asked his Chassidim where God is found. “Rebbe, there is no place in all existence where God is not found,” they answered.

“No,” he replied. “God is only found where you let God in.”

Of course saying that God wants to be known is anthropomorphic language, i.e., giving God human characteristics. But how else could we know God! Our Sages tell us clearly that the Torah is written in human terms; for how do we know anything except through our human eyes? And so too even with God; for God to exist in our lives and in our hearts, we have to choose to know God. 

Here’s a question: isn’t wanting to be truly known an essential human need we all share? And how important is the need to be known?

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Udren is the Co-Director of the RRG Beit Midrash at the Hebrew University Hillel, which offers Jewish educational programming for overseas and Israeli Hebrew University students from all backgrounds and denominations.
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