Rabbi Batsheva Appel
Setting the stage for the story of the Exodus, Jacob brings his family to Egypt to survive the famine and they stay. Everyone in Joseph’s generation dies but the family remains in Egypt, in fact they have a population explosion. We read: “The Israelites were fruitful and they swarmed and they became numerous and they grew mighty...” [Exodus 1:7] In this single verse we have four different verbs to describe how the population of Israelites grows. The increasingly large presence of the Israelites starts to threaten the Egyptians, who begin the oppression and eventual enslavement of the descendants of Jacob. We read about the worsening situation into which Moses is born and how he is raised in the palace of Pharaoh. Things continue to deteriorate for the Israelites until the text says: “The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God. God heard their moaning, and God remembered God’s covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.” [Exodus 2:23 - 25] Again we have four different verbs, but this time the description is of the Divine attention to the plight of the Israelites.
The Torah is not known for effusive language. If there is a need for emphasis, then there might be some doubling of verb forms from the same Hebrew root. But to have four different verbs used? That is much more than emphasis. How do we interpret this? Here I think about the idea of four dimensions. Each of us is three dimensional. As humans, we are limited in how we experience the world because we are bound by space and a limited understanding of time. God, as the Creator of the world, is beyond all space and time. Just as we can think about four dimensions, up to a point, and even experience the four dimensions, up to a point, we are limited in how we can experience God who is beyond all time and space.
Yet the Book of Exodus is all about our experience of God and our relationship with God, as we can see when we look at what our two sets of four verbs emphasizes. The first set of four verbs describes the transformation of a large family into Israel, a people. The second set of four verbs describes God’s focus on the people Israel because of a covenant. When we think about the Exodus from Egypt the goal is the development of a people that has a shared relationship with God. Despite our limits, as human beings and as Israel, we have a covenant with God, who is limitless.