Between Ignorance and Knowledge / Parashat Shemot

Yakov Z. Meyer
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Yakov Z. Meyer

Joseph dies at the end of the Book of Genesis and a new king ascends the Egyptian throne − a king “who knew not Joseph” ‏(Exodus 1:8‏). The ignorance of Joseph’s existence and deeds enables a redefinition of Pharaoh’s relationship with the Children of Israel, allowing him to reassess the situation: “And he said unto his people: ‘Behold, the people of the children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us; come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when there befalleth us any war, they also join themselves unto our enemies, and fight against us, and get them up out of the land’” ‏(Exod. 1:9-10‏).

As the narrative progresses, Pharaoh continues to display this trait of “ignorance.” Toward the end of this week’s Torah reading, Moses and Aaron appear before Pharaoh ‏(that is, the new ruler who has succeeded the one whose death is recorded at the end of chapter 2‏) and say to him: “Thus saith the Lord, the God of Israel: Let My people go, that they may hold a feast unto Me in the wilderness” ‏(Exod. 5:1‏). Pharaoh replies: “Who is the Lord, that I should hearken unto His voice to let Israel go? I know not the Lord, and moreover I will not let Israel go” ‏(Exod. 5:2‏).
Here, as well, “ignorance” serves as a narrative engine that creates demarcation lines. Had Pharaoh agreed then and there to obey God, the narrative would have ended with far fewer thunderbolts. However, Pharaoh replies, “I know not the Lord” − and that “ignorance” enables him to rethink his future moves.

By proclaiming, “I know not the Lord,” Pharaoh defines the borders of his reality and thus the rules of the game. In this sense, the ruler acts as if he created the world and as if he is God. Since he knows neither Joseph nor God, Pharaoh establishes Egypt and everything that happens in it as a separate territory that has no connection with either history or God’s word.

In contrast with Pharaoh’s “ignorance,” the Torah presents a very different image of his “rival,” God: “And it came to pass in the course of those many days that the king of Egypt died; and the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. And God saw the children of Israel, and God knew” ‏(Exod. 2:23-25‏).

This is the first time in the Book of Exodus that God is mentioned. In contrast with Genesis − whose chief protagonist is man and in which God is given only guest appearances as one who promises, keeps his word and sometimes disappoints man − here in Exodus, God is the hero of the narrative. He is the one whom Pharaoh challenges, he is the one who physically descends to the Land of Egypt to carry out his revenge, and he is the one who performs the many miracles depicted throughout Exodus.

The narrative in the Torah’s second book is in sharp contrast with the relatively realistic character of Genesis, which focuses more on family relationships than on God’s influence over them. In Genesis, God hides behind the scenes, although he may or may not be pulling the narrative’s strings; in Exodus, on the other hand, God comes out from behind the curtain and reveals himself as the figure standing at center stage. When the Israelites cry out to heaven in their distress, God appears in the narrative.

our verbs describe what happens when the Israelites cry out: God hears, remembers, sees and knows. He hears their cries, which remind him of his covenant with the three Patriarchs − Abraham, Isaac and Jacob − and thus creates a link with Genesis. The Almighty not only literally sees the Israelites, but sees them in a broad textual context as the descendants of Joseph whom Pharaoh does not know. The Torah tells us that God knows but does not reveal what or whom he knows. Although the reader is not informed about these things, it is perhaps possible to decipher the words “and God knew” as an antithesis to Pharaoh’s “ignorance.”

The fact that no object appears after the words “and God knew” transforms God’s seeing of the Israelites into a very broad perception: God sees them in the textual context of Genesis. The Israelites’ cries and God’s knowledge break down the imaginary barrier between Genesis and Exodus, and it can now be breached.
When Moses emerges for the first time from the royal palace, he sees an Egyptian striking a Hebrew slave: “And he [Moses] looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he smote the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand” ‏(Exod. 2:12‏). When he emerges a second time, he sees two Hebrews quarreling and attempts to separate them, whereupon the villain in this disputes retorts, “Who made thee a ruler and a judge over us? Thinkest thou to kill me, as thou didst kill the Egyptian?” ‏(2:14‏). The Torah then states: “And Moses feared, and said: ‘Surely the thing is known.’”

Moses, who grew up in Pharaoh’s palace, seeks to administer justice in the fair-minded manner that Pharaoh taught him, to establish partitions and form a new reality. The Torah informs the reader: “And he [Moses] looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he smote the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand.” If there is no man, that means that there is nothing beyond the reality that Moses has created and that no one is present to report what Moses does to the Egyptian. No one will ever know about the murder, and if that is truly the case, Moses can in essence establish his own reality and territory, and can decide for himself what kind of justice should exist there.

However, the reality that Moses seeks to create collapses: “Surely the thing is known.” The murder was not committed between solid partitions; knowledge of it has leaked out and Moses must bear the consequences of his actions. He must flee: “Now when Pharaoh heard this thing, he sought to slay Moses. But Moses fled from the face of Pharaoh, and dwelt in the land of Midian; and he sat down by a well” ‏(Exod. 2:15‏).

This is a critical stage in Moses’ process of entering adulthood: the stage of exiting the palace. He is making the transition from having the desire to create an event that no one will ever know about − just as Pharaoh does not know Joseph or God − to the understanding that everything that happens takes place within a given context, that it is impossible to be “ignorant,” that a true leader who seeks to establish true justice must know both history and God.

'Moses before Pharoah', the Syriac Bible of Paris, 6th century.Credit: Courtesy