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Shemot 5774-2013

“G-d Recognizes His Peoples’ Sufferings”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shemot, the enslavement of the Children of Israel by the Egyptians begins in earnest.

When the Children of Israel came down to Egypt, they numbered only 70 souls. In Egypt the Hebrews were fruitful and increased abundantly, becoming exceedingly numerous and strong. The land of Egypt was literally filled with them.

Apparently, the Hebrews’ expanding population was seen as a major security threat by the Egyptian monarchy, and when the new king arose, who did not know Joseph, he regarded the Children of Israel as too numerous and too mighty for the Egyptians.

Because he feared that in the event of a foreign attack on Egypt the Children of Israel would become a fifth column, he placed officers over them to afflict them with great burdens, and forced them to build great store-cities for Pharaoh, Pithom and Raamses.

But the more the Hebrews were oppressed, the more they flourished. Desperate to stop the growth of the Israelites, Pharaoh issued a series of decrees, the first of which directed the midwives to kill all the newborn male Jewish children. When that plan failed, Pharaoh decreed that every Jewish male newborn be cast into the river.

Through the intervention of Pharaoh’s daughter, the baby Moses is saved from the river and grows up as a prince in Pharaoh’s palace. Because of his strong Jewish identity, when Moses sees an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew, he intervenes, killing the Egyptian and burying his body in the sand. The next day, Moses is taken aback upon seeing two Jewish men arguing, and reproves them. It is then that Moses learns that the fact that he had killed an Egyptian was well known, and he is forced to flee from Egypt to Midian. In Midian, Moses marries Jethro’s daughter, Tzipporah, and remains there until his eightieth year.

Many years have passed, the king of Egypt dies, and the Children of Israel suffer greatly under the Egyptian slavery, causing the Israelites to cry out to G-d. Scripture states, Exodus 2:24-25וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹקְים, אֶת-נַאֲקָתָם; וַיִּזְכֹּר אֱלֹקְים אֶת-בְּרִיתוֹ , אֶת-אַבְרָהָם אֶת-יִצְחָק וְאֶת-יַעֲקֹב. וַיַּרְא אֱלֹקְים, אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וַיֵּדַע, אֱלֹקְים  G-d heard their groaning, and G-d remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. And G-d saw the Children of Israel and G-d took notice of them.

One might logically conclude that the Hebrews cried out at this particular time because now that the oppressive old king had died, the Israelites finally had reason to hope that perhaps the new king would change the previous king’s brutal edicts.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch concludes the opposite. He suggests that the reason that the Jewish people cried out now after so many years of suffering, was because once the king who had decreed the suffering died and a new king arose, the people realized that the evil decree of the deceased king would now be permanent, leaving them with no possibility of relief.

Among other commentators, Rabbi Simcha Bunam reasons that before Moses appeared on the scene the people themselves had all given up hope. It was specifically when the Israelites began to labor without complaint that G-d concluded that it was time for them to be liberated. Otherwise, there would be little possibility of rehabilitating them from the depths of their misery and sorrow (See: Va’eira 5766-2006). Other commentators suggest that G-d heard the cries of the Israelites at this particular point in time because the Jews now merited G-d’s concern. When the verse in Exodus 2:25 states, וַיַּרְא אֱלֹקְים, אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל that “G-d looked upon the Israelites,” it implies that despite the people’s suffering, He saw that the Hebrew slaves made great efforts to help each other.

Notwithstanding the backbreaking work, when one Jew saw that a fellow Jew was unable to fulfill his quota, he would reach out to help him. That is what “caught G-d’s attention.” It was the concern for others that made the Jewish people worthy for G-d to take notice of their affliction, and redeem them from their suffering.

Although the verse clearly notes that the people’s cries for help rose up to G-d, the cries alone were apparently not enough. It was the change in the Israelites’ relationship with their fellow Jews that made G-d no longer indifferent to their plight.

Furthermore, the fact that the verse Exodus 2:25 concludes with וַיֵּדַע, אֱלֹקְים that G-d took notice of them, indicates that the connection between the People of Israel and G-d had reached the highest level. That can only happen when humans act in the image of G-d Himself.

It was the concern for the other that marked the beginning of Jewish nationhood.

May you be blessed.