Rabbi David Walk
Prayer is a most critical concept to the religious personality. I've written many times about prayer, including last week, but the topic seems to be inexhaustible. Prayer is important regardless of God's response to our efforts. I often think that the best prayers don't ask for anything. My favorite conversations with family and friends have no specific topic or requests. We just shmoozed. L'havdil, that can be equally true of our time talking to God. My favorite line in Ashrei (Psalm 145) is 'The Lord is near to all who call, to all who call in sincerity (verse 18).' Our prayer/conversation wasn't about 'gimme, gimme'; it's about 'it's so nice we had this time together.' But what about God? How does our Maker view these attempts to communicate? Well, obviously, I don't know. If I did, I wouldn't be sitting here writing these humble efforts. However, this week, I believe that we get a glimpse into how God reacts to our prayers, and I think it's surprising.
Our parsha quickly moves from a review of the Jews living large in Egypt, 'they were successful and increased, and became mighty and the land was filled by them (Exodus 1:7),' to a series of proclamations by Pharaoh to persecute and disenfranchise the Jews. This was done by a new Pharaoh with an Egypt first agenda, and a deep mistrust of those who are different. The Jews were willing to ride out the storm. Until that Pharoah was replaced, but his edicts were not. At that point the Jews realized that their position was untenable and they 'groaned'. The Hebrew term is va'ye'anchu, which can be wonderfully rendered into Yiddish as 'they gave a krechtz'. We do that well. This newfound comprehension of their situation led them to pray.
Their prayer, like any good krechtz, rose up from their kishkes, and emerged as a primal cry. Hebrew: va'yizaku. Chapter 2 verse 23 describes this sincere appeal, based on the anguish from the servitude, ascended all the way to God. Then comes a complex response from God. The first part of the reply in verse 24 is clear and understandable: God heard their cry, and remembered the covenant with Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'akov. In other words, the deal made with Avraham back in Genesis 15, and renewed with his heirs, was coming to fruition. The descendants were being persecuted in a land which was not theirs. Just as advertised 'they were enslaved and oppressed (Genesis 15:14).' Therefore, when God 'remembers' or activates the covenant it implies that it's now time for step two: Finally, I will execute judgments against that nation which enslaves them, and they will leave with great wealth (verse 14). Verse 24 back in Exodus 2 is, therefore, a perfect follow up to the Jews' cry for help. This is exactly the way the plan was drawn up. Like an Amercian football play with all the X's and O's flawlessly aligned. The problem is verse 25.
So, we have the Jews cry out to God, and God hears their petition and prepares to execute the covenantal game plan. But then the verse informs us that 'God saw the Israelites and knew.' 'Saw' what? 'Knew' what? I don't get it. Hasn't it all been predicted? Aren't the pieces already falling into the harmonious pattern predicted centuries earlier. It seems that verse 25 is superfluous.
There's perhaps a simple way out of the problem. When God promised the Jews that the offending nation would be judged, that probably means that at the time of the persecution a Divine decision would be made as to what punishment to mete out. Perhaps, that's what our verse means. God is now noticing the level of oppression and calibrating the level of justice to deliver. That's the 'seeing' and 'knowing', sort of in a judicial capacity. Rashi explains that God was paying close attention to the Jews, and would not ignore them. This could mean that a period of hester panim or Divine 'hiding' was ended. We know from Deuteronomy (31:17-18) that occasionally God would ignore us, because of our behavior, like any normal parent. Rabbeinu Bechaye (d. 1340) adds a mystical idea that God's attention and knowledge are akin to love, as in Adam knew Eve. He avers that this intimate knowledge is the true beginning of the redemption.
Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik saw this seemingly 'extra' verse in a totally different light. He explained that this statement had nothing to do with the Egypt narrative per se. God is informing us of a reality within prayer. In verse 23 the Jews plea was directly connected to the servitude, and, indeed, the verse repeats that God heard their prayers min ha'avoda, concerning the slavery. The Jews were asking for one thing only, 'Make the pain stop!' Their petition was very limited. All that is understandable; they were suffering horribly. But, Baruch Hashem, that's not the way that God works. Listen to the Rav's own words: I always say we would have been the most unfortunate people if God had been guided by our prayer (The Rav: Thinking Aloud, Shmot, p. 4).
The Rav elucidated that if God had answered our ancestors' prayers verbatum we would have had half a redemption, because they were only asking for the work to stop. Now we can understand what God saw: the need for a full redemption from Egypt, with an epiphany at Sinai and a conquest of Israel. God saw what the Jews couldn't; God knew what we didn't.
We must believe that this is the process of prayer. Beseech with a full heart and have faith in God's knowledge of what's best. I can't believe that God plays games with our prayers. If we word our supplication incorrectly, that can't be a catalyst for disaster. As we say in Ashrei: God fulfills the wishes of those who show awe (Psalms 145:19). It's all about the sincerity of our worship, and the faith that our Parent in Heaven knows best.