Thursday, January 19, 2012

REPRINT: Knowledge in Parsha Va'era

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Our parasha opens with the famous four-fold expression of redemption that God vows to Moses:

I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments; and I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God . . .
(Exodus 6:6–7a)
After these four promises from God comes a fifth:
. . . and I will bring you in unto the land concerning which I lifted up My hand to give it to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
(Exodus 6:8) 
What is it that bridges God’s four-fold redemption of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to God’s bringing the Israelites into the land?  The answer is given in the intervening verse:

and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.
(Exodus 6:7b, emphasis mine)
This emphasis on da‘at, knowledge of God, is characteristic of the first half of Exodus, in which Israel comes to know God through his miraculous deliverance. In particular, this verse highlights that Israel’s future entrance into the land must be preceded by their coming to know that the Lord is God.

What does it mean to know God? According to Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Hebrew word yada, from which the word da‘at is derived, “means more than the possession of abstract concepts. Knowledge . . . involves both an intellectual and an emotional act . . . it implies not only legal obligation, but also inner attitudes” (Heschel, The Prophets, 57–59). It also means attachment in the fullest sense, as conveyed by the Biblical use of the word yada to describe relations between a husband and wife. Thus, the antithesis of knowledge of God is idolatry, which is likened to adultery.

Tragically, when Moses proclaims the five-fold message of redemption to the Israelites, with its accompanying promise of knowledge, they are unable to hear him due to their “crushed spirits and cruel bondage” (6:9). The Midrash explains that “crushed spirits” is a veiled reference to their difficulty in abandoning idol worship (Exodus Rabba 6.5, citing Ezekiel 20:6–8). So God commands Moses to go to Pharaoh alone (6:10)—not accompanied by the elders of Israel, as originally promised (see Exodus 3:18).

The late Lubavitcher Rebbe taught:
These verses cite five expressions of redemption. The first four relate to the Egyptian exile and the three exiles following thereafter, including the present one. The fifth—“I shall bring you . . .”—relates to an additional level of ascent that will follow the initial redemption by Moshiach.
(Living With Moshiach, p. 51)
If the fifth message of redemption (“I shall bring you into the land . . .”) is a reference to the Messianic redemption, then it follows that entrance into the Messianic Age must be preceded by Israel coming to know God in the fullest sense. Of this Jeremiah writes, “no man shall teach his neighbor . . . for they all will know me” (Jeremiah 31:34).

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