This week we begin reading the book of Shmot, and with that new volume there is a totally new reality for our ancestors. We could talk about the slavery as the new situation, but that was temporary. It’s ironic but the first person to notice the new state of affairs is our arch nemesis, Pharaoh. He states: Look, the nation of the Children of Yisrael are much too numerous and strong for us (Shmot 1:9). There you have it: We are no longer dealing with a family or tribe. The B’nei Yisrael are an AM, nation.
There is one curiosity about this new nomenclature. We moderns talk of AM YISRAEL, but Pharaoh, and throughout Tanach, the title is AM B’NEI YISRAEL. Even though it is harder to chant in slogans (AM YISRAEL CHAI!), it is a beautiful description of our national reality. We are a nation, but we remain the progeny of YA’AKOV AVINU, YISRAEL SABA. We’re a MISHPACHAH!
Clans can have an elder or patriarch to guide them. A nation needs a leader, commander, governor, or king. So, in chapter 3 we are introduced to our first national leader: Moshe Rabbeinu. Our reluctant leader. The best leader is the one who doesn’t want the job. Moshe is our man!
In this article, I am interested in God’s first intructions to this most humble of humans. God informs him: I have surely seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters, yes I am mindful of their sorrows (3:7). This statement is hard to translate, because in the original Hebrew God says: RA’OH RA’ITI. Most translations assume that this is emphasis, like ‘I have surely seen’ or ‘I have marked well’ (JPS) or ‘I have indeed seen’. However, many of our rabbinic commentators aren’t satisfied just going for intensity or stress.
The S’forno, who was also a scholar of grammar, says: This construction is normal wherever the Torah employs a dual, duplicate construction. The reason for the duplication is as if to contradict someone who denies that God has seen what goes on. It is as if saying: in spite of anything you may think or say, I insist that you are wrong and I am right.
In other words, a reasonable observer might have assumed that God hadn’t noticed what was going on, because there was no Divine intervention. Even though I am going to go in a different direction myself, this comment is critically important, because often the Jewish nation feels abandoned. Reb Ovadiah S’forno is assuring us that even though God hasn’t yet intervened in any specific case, our Lord has noticed and recorded our suffering. The response is, for reasons beyond our ken, delayed for a later time.
The Ibn Ezra also gives a more nuanced translation: I have noticed things which others have missed because they were done in secret. This stresses another theological reality: God sees and notices everything. Nothing is hidden from God. That’s both reassuring and terrifying.
Then there are the commentaries who insist that the double REI’A must mean that two things were noticed. The Oznayim L’Torah (Rav Zalman Soritzkin) explains that the double sighting implies that God saw both the B’nei Yisrael and the Egyptians. God saw that the Jews had fulfilled the prophecy in the Covenant Between the Parts (Breishit 15:13 & 14). Avraham was informed that the Jews would be strangers in a strange land and the hosts would be judged according to their behavior. The double seeing here means God observed that the Jews fulfilled the prophecy and that the Egyptians were in for a tough ride because of their cruelty.
The S’fat Emet, I believe, carries that extremely important idea one step further. The second Gerer Rebbe observes that later in God’s instructions to Moshe, He tells our new prophet and leader that he must go to Egypt and tell the elders of Yisrael: PAKOD PAKADITI you and what they did to you in Egypt (Shmot 3:16). Two PAKOD’s for two RE’IYA’s.
It’s hard to translate PAKOD. Most translations go with ‘visit’, but we’ve got ‘show concern’, ‘close attention’, ‘carefully watching’, ‘remembered’, ‘care’, ‘take note’. Rav Arye Kaplan went for the wordy but accurate: granted you special providence. PAKOD implies both observance and action.
Not only did God notice two things; these two sightings would result in two distinct actions. One for the B’nei Yisrael and one for the Egyptians. One glorious; one quite miserable.
This approach is the one that I believe best fits the situation. God’s double noticing implies that two distinct items have been noticed, one applies to the B’nei Yisrael and the other pertains to the Egyptians. These two sightings result in two very different modes of action by God.
All of this exposition is necessary, I believe, to truly understand the events in Egypt and the future unfolding of Jewish destiny. God pays attention and acts upon those observations. We don’t always notice that this double reality is occurring at the time, but in our long Jewish perspective on history, we should get it.
When in the midst of these historical developments it is very hard to understand and to just hold on. However, we, B’nei Yisrael, have been around a long time and must do our best to see the big picture, the long point of view.
We’re engaged in one of those difficult and painful times, but we must hold strong and believe the words of God to Moshe Rabbeinu: I am mindful of their sufferings…and I will bring them to a good and spacious land, overflowing with milk and honey. It’s time for us to feel that our land is ‘spacious’ and not oppressed and squeezed from all sides. Please, God, very soon!