Exodus 1 – 6:1
Does It Feel Like G-d Forgets About Our Suffering?
“And a long time passed
and the King of Egypt died.
And the children of Israel sighed
because of their subjugation,
and they screamed
and their pleading was directed
to G-d from the bondage.
And G-d heard their death-gasps (moans);
and G-d remembered
with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
And G-d saw the children of Israel
and G-d was going to show concern.”
| vayamim harabim hahem
| vayamot melech Mitzraim
| aye’anechu venei-Yisra’el
| vata’al shav’atam
| el-ha’Elohim min-ha’avodah.
| Vayishma Elohim et-na’akatam;
| vayizkor Elohim
| et-Avraham et-Yitzchak ve’et-.
| Vayar Elohim et-benei Yisra’el
| vayeda Elohim.
Parshat Shemot and the following parashiot are going to be be some of the most fast paced sections of the Torah. This whole section above is actually one whole paragraph. It comes right after Moses kills an Egyptian and runs to the land of Midian, which is north-east of Eilat and the gulf of Akaba. On account of his offense he lives in exile there. After he helps the daughters of the high priest of Midian he is taken in by them and marries one of the priests daughters. He thus settles there in the land of Midian. It is a very short section that comes right before the encounter of the burning bush. It is intended to connect the story of Moses’ exile to the coming mandate for him to return to Egypt. At the end of Exodus chapter two we then see that pharaoh has died and G-d now calls to remembrance His covenant with Israel and recognizes their anguish.
One of the most interesting questions posed at shul one time was “Why did G-d have to ‘remember’ the covenant?” And it’s a very good question. A critical reader is almost forced to ask that when we see everything that the children of Israel have endured before we get to this point, how can it be that G-d just now remembers? Why does He have to remember? Did He forget? How could He forget when it say they were crying out? As in no less that four different ways they expressed their pain, which means they were doing this continuously and in every way they could.
The answer is not a simple one. The quite frankly is because of the vagueness of the text, and as a consequence of the lack of sophisticated language we utilize today.
By nature the word yizkor means “to remember.” Most of us know this word yizkor as it is the name that is given to the Jewish tradition of mourning for one’s dearly departed in prayers to memorialize them. Generally we understand this word as meaning to give future recount to the topic at hand. But Yizkor doesn’t mean that you just remember, it means your about to declare your remembrance of something.
We saw this word used several places in the same form just a few weeks ago in parshatiot Veyeshev and MiKeitz, which displays this truth. In Mikeitz we see a very general use of the word in the statement:
“And Yosef remembered the dream
which he dreamt about them.”
| Vayizkor Yosef et ha-chalomot
| asher chalom lachem.
The general we understand the word “remembered” in the English language as being in contrast to the word “forgot.” It does not seem readily apparent to us that the continuing words of the verse “…va’yomer aleichem / …and he said to them,” is one of the prerequisites of this being a “remembrance.”
However, if we skip back to the previous parsha, to Veyeshev, we see that the whole point of remembering is so that you act upon it. To zakar is to actually follow through with some action. When Yosef is in prison he requested the chief butler to remember him, asking this way:
“If you would remember me
when it happens that things go well for you,
do me a favor
and remember me to Pharaoh
and get me out from this house!”
| Ki im z’kar’tani it’cha
| ka’asher yitav lach,
| v’ashita’na imadi chased;
| v-hiz’kar’tni el Paroh
| v’hotzai’tani min ha-bayit ha-zeh.
Yosef is in desperate desire to be released, so in return for the interpretation of this man’s dream he asks the favor of him mentioning Yosef for a pardon to pharaoh.
Unfortunately, we read a few verses later that this man did not follow through:
“And the head butler did not remember
Yosef, and he forgot him.”
| V’lo-zacar sar-ha’mashekim
| et Yosef, va’yish’kachaichu
That doesn’t necessarily mean that he had a lapse of memory regarding Yosef. More than likely he just failed to mention him. As was the Egyptian custom (and its also just plain common sense) once one is pardoned their offense is never to be mentioned ever again. This was the law at penalty of death, but simple logic also tells us it was in the best interest of the butler to not ask for favors let alone even give the pharaoh reason to reconsider. It was safer to just move on.
But when the need for the interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams arises he remembers Yosef. But first he asks permission to make mention of the way he knows him. Of this we read:
“And the chief butler said to Pharaoh
‘Of my offense, I make mention of today…’”
| Vay’daber shar hamash’ekim et Paroh
| Et hata’ai, ani maz’kir ha-yom.
It’s not good enough to just consider someone, one must make mention; to zakar means to follow through with some sort of action. One isn’t actually giving proper consideration of something until they “huzakar / make mention,” one has to speak up.
As we get into Vayikra and Devarim we are going to also be commanded to remember the holy convocations – the holidays. People were not commanded to just consider the holidays, but to also follow through with some sort of ritual act. Usually this was the offering of prayers and incense on behalf of ones family by the patriarch of the family; and occasionally, some other sort of offering or charity that corresponds to that observance. This is how our colloquial term “zikaron” is derived, meaning to memorialize something. This is more than reminiscing and mental recollection, it means to act in commemoration.
This isn’t the only place in the Torah that we run into this issue. We also see this in the story of our mother Rachel when she was remembered for blessing in order to conceive (Gen. 30:22), we also hear Chanah ask for be remembered and be blessed likewise (1 Samuel 1:11). We read this of Avraham Avinu (Genesis 19:29). We again also read that G-d remembered Noach (Genesis 8:1).
In none of these cases can we assume that G-d forgot about them, we instead see that their situation was given consideration in order to help them.
It might seem cruel to us when someone who has the power to change the situation does not do so. As we see, this is what happened to Yosef. He was left incarcerated for another two years before he was rescued from his unjust captivity. His situation was dire, when he asked he didn’t just ask for a favor off the cuff, he asked “v’ashita’na;” in modern Hebrew we generally use “na” to mean “please;” so it reads to us as modern readers as “do something, please.” However, Rashi points out to us that at this point in history “na” does not yet have this connotation, instead is it is a term for pleading. Yosef was unambiguous in his begging, and furthermore the situation he was in was very apparent to the chief butler because he witnessed it himself by being there in prison with him. He knew how serious it was.
The best answer is that in this case the word “vakizkor / remembered,” as with case of the use of the word “vayedah / to consider” is just an anthropomorphism. G-d does not need to remember anything, anymore than He needs to know something; He knows and is aware of our situations at all times. Though people might need to be reminded of something, as humans are also prone to forget; G-d is not. Nor is he prone to just disregard and not consider one’s suffering. We will see this displayed for us in retrospect in Psalm 78.
Several times through out that song we will see that Israel is said to forget and remember G-d. What do we mean by remembered? It is said that they earnestly sought after G-d and turned back to Him. (v.34) But not once does it say that G-d forgot them, though it contentiously says that He remembered them.
Being forgetful or unaware is a human condition. It is something we can all relate to. And because the psalmist is speaking to people who need something to relate to he describes G-d in ways we might understand. However, naturally we are prone to assume that other people feel, think or act the way we do. But G-d is not a person, and is not prone to the limitations we are. More than that, He is profoundly more compassionate than we humans are. It is written of Him:
“But He is the Merciful One,
forgiving of iniquity
and does not destroy.
and He frequently turns back His anger
and does not awaken His full wrath
But He remembered that they were only flesh,
a fleeting breath that does not come back.”
| Vehu rachum
| y’kapeir ayon
| v’lo yash’chit;
| v’hir’bah l’haishiv apo
v’lo yair kol chamato.
| Va’yizkor ki vasar haimah
| ru’ach hokeich v’lo yashuv.”
Here the scriptures give us the reason that G-d “remembers” the pain of people, on account of His great mercy and compassion He is moved to speak up and save them from their suffering. He gives consideration to people’s weakness and frailty; and performs acts of salvation for us. He is responsive to our limitations and wishes that we not suffer more than we can endure.
We see that this is also true in this weeks parsha. As the parsha describes the different ways that the children of Israel expressed their pain we see a progression from bad to worst. It starts out as just sighing, but then grows into crying out, or shouting in pain; followed by imploring, or expressing their desperate need; lastly they are left only able to moan. Once the people are no longer able to endure, He likewise was unable to tolerate their bondage.
Though it might have seem like G-d did not speak up soon as they might have liked, He did not just ignore the situation and come in at the tail end of their suffering. In fact, He made an early intervention in the situation. Though it had been promised to Abraham that his descendants would be in bondage for 400 years before being delivered (Gen. 14:13), G-d actually initiated the exodus after only 210 years from when Yosef went down to Egypt.
Once the children of Israel directed their desperate pleading to G-d He then acted to save them from inevitable death. In verse 25 we are told He “saw” (vayar) them, which is another anthropomorphism. This doesn’t mean He didn’t see them before, but what is meant is that He focused His attention on them, because He was about to act in their aide. Likewise, G-d “remembered” the covenant made with the patriarchs not because He had failed to recall it, but He made mention to it because He was about to demonstration He recognized (vayeda) their suffering by making their promised and needed salvation a reality.