There is an old joke about a boy who forgets to study for an exam. Before going to sleep he turns towards heaven and pleads with Hashem for a favor, a snow day. Included in his plea are all of the things that he will do to pay God back. Behold, the boy wakes up the next morning and looks out his window to find fourteen inches of snow. At that point, he turns to heaven and says to God, “Never mind, it all worked out on its own.”
Although this story is meant for humor, it touches on a truth about human nature. When knowledge obligates us to act in a certain way or to feel indebted to someone else, we often ignore that truth so that we are not obligated to change our actions and feelings. Picture a crowded express bus to New York. You got on at an early stop and sat down in the second row. By the time you get to the last stop, all seats are occupied. An elderly woman gets on the bus. If you allow yourself to see her and “know” that she is standing in the aisle, you will have to either give up your seat or feel guilty. So you close your eyes and take a nap. That way you don’t have to deal with an inconvenient truth.
Throughout the first four Parashiyot of Sefer Shemot, this message is expressed repeatedly. In the first Perek, the Pasuk states, “VaYakam Melech Chadash Al Mitzrayim Asher Lo Yada Et Yosef,” “A new king who did not know Yosef rose in Egypt” (Shemot 1:8). The new king of Egypt does not know about Yosef. Consider the important role that Yosef plays in Egyptian history. Consider how he single-handedly saves Egypt from famine and secures its position as a super power. Is it possible that the king has never heard about this Yosef? Of course Paroh knows about Yosef. When it states “Asher Lo Yada,” the Torah insinuates that he does not want to know because knowing would have obligated him to act with kindness and gratitude towards Bnei Yisrael. It is for the same reason that Paroh declares “Lo Yadati Et Hashem VeGam Et Yisrael Lo Ashaleiach,” “I do not know Hashem, nor will I send out Bnei Yisrael” (Shemot 5:2).
At the end of the second Perek, the Pasuk states, “VaYar Elokim Et Bnei Yisrael VaYeidah Elokim,” “God saw Bnei Yisrael, and He knew” (Shemot 2:24). After Bnei Yisrael cry out to God, He sees them and He knows them. Clearly, God knows about Bnei Yisrael and their suffering all along. It is at this point, however, when God really knows them in the active sense. As the Ramban explains, “Natan Aleihem Leiv,” “He turned his focus and attention to them.” At that point, God allows Himself to “know,” to see and to consider the nation’s plight. It is this awareness that spurs God to action.
Throughout these Parashiyot, as God crushes Paroh and the Egyptians and simultaneously builds the Jewish nation, the Pesukim remind us constantly that the purpose of the Yetziat Mitzrayim is to instill within us the real knowledge and awareness that Hashem is in control of the world and in control of each of our lives. For example, the Torah states, “Lema’an Teida Ki Ein KaHashem Elokeinu,” “So that it will be known that there are none like God (Shemot 8:6), and “Lema’an Teidah Ki Ani Hashem BeKerev Ha’aretz,” “So that you will know that I am Hashem in the midst of the land” (Shemot 8:18).
This Shabbat, Parsahat BeShalach, we finally reach the conclusion of the Yetziat Mitzrayim episode. Perhaps the high point of this story is not the splitting of the sea or the final destruction of the Egyptian army but rather the reaction of Bnei Yisrael to being saved. They consider the scene before them, turn to God, and declare, “Zeh Keili VeAnveihu” “This is my God, and I will glorify Him” (Shemot 15:2). We know, we understand, and we acknowledge that Hashem is our God, and with this understanding comes an obligation to commit our lives to His service.