Rabbi Batsheva Appel
I loved the book A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle as a child and will always remember the description about dimensions in space, a dot representing one dimension, a line representing two dimensions, and a cube representing three dimensions. Then the explanation moves to four dimensions, with the fourth dimension being time. When the discussion moves to the fourth dimension, I have always had difficulty wrapping my mind around what is being described. Time always feels like a process to me and unrelated to geometry.
In Parashat Shemot, Jacob brings his family to Egypt, to survive the famine, where they stay. For generations the family remains in Egypt, leading to 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. 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 His 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 overabundance of language? Two or three verbs would have emphasized each of these verses, yet we have four each time. Here I think about the idea of four dimensions. As humans, we are limited in how we experience the world, because we are bound by space and a limited understanding of time. We can experience the passage of time, theorize about time, but our understanding is limited. 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 the covenant. When we think about the Exodus from Egypt, the goal of this part of the Jewish narrative 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.