"Knowing" God

January 20th: Shemot
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

This week, as we begin the Book of Exodus, it may be helpful to look forward to the climax or purpose of the journey the Torah describes. In twenty chapters, we shall be at Mount Sinai, witnessing God’s Revelation and receiving the Ten Commandments. I believe that it can be helpful to see this story as a whole: that our journey into and out of slavery sets the stage for Mount Sinai. A hint about this unified message comes in a linguistic note on page 318 of Etz Hayim, the Chumash and Torah commentary we use in our sanctuary. We are told that the Hebrew word ידע / to know appears more than twenty times in the first fourteen chapters of Exodus. Apparently knowing/knowledge are central to the Torah’s message.

The first use of ידע / to know comes just eight verses into the book. “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise, in the event of war, they may join with our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.’ So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor…” (Exodus 1.8-11) Know, in this case means paying attention to and being aware of the historical significance and loyalty of Joseph and his family. Whether the ignorance is a matter of social disruption or dynastic change or willful disregard, the lack of knowledge leads to immorality and oppression. Pharaoh’s ignorance leads him to sin.

(This passage also presents us with the archetypal Jewish nightmare—that our neighbors and fellow citizens will not pay attention to the active and constructive role we play in every country in which we’ve lived—and then turn against us. Chas v’shalom!)

God gets involved in this issue of knowledge because of Pharaoh’s belief that he (Pharaoh) is god. This Egyptian tradition leads these dynasties of leaders to think that they can determine morality—that they can treat people without justice or compassion, and God’s decides that this grievous impiety needs remediation. Most of the other instances of the Hebrew word  ידע / to know in the first half of Exodus are in regard to God’s efforts at teaching Pharaoh and all Egypt and all the world. They need to know that God is God—and they need to know that God wants humans to treat other humans with respect, justice, and kindness.

Notice, as we progress through the next fourteen chapters, how this instruction about God’s Sovereignty is repeated over and over again. At some points, the intended student is Pharaoh. At other points, the message is for Pharaoh and his court. At other points, the audience is expanded to the whole world, and, in a few places, even the Egyptians’ gods are included in those who need to know Who is really in charge.

Of course, Israel is also included in the intended audience, and this brings us to the climax of the story, Mount Sinai and the Ten Commandments. Such a profound moment has led to countless commentaries and lessons, but the lesson about knowledge of the Divine comes in the very first verse (Exodus 20.2): “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.”

Some consider this a prologue rather than a commandment because nothing is actually commanded. They would add the next phrase, “You shall have no other gods besides Me,” to get a commandment: the prohibition of other gods. These interpreters would then consider the Second Commandment to be the prohibition of all idols, whether of pagan gods or even the One God.

However, there is another opinion that sees the opening sentence as a commandment in itself—a commandment to  ידע / know that God is God. We are commanded to know God and to act accordingly. What can this mean in modern life?

For some, knowing God is a description of the religious life—that combination of prayer, study, and meditation we employ to develop our awareness of and our relationship with the Divine. As Reb Mendel of Kotzk teaches, “Where is God? Wherever we open our hearts.”

For some, knowing God is a matter of ascertaining God’s agenda (or a godly agenda) and making it our own. Thus does Rabban Gamliel, son of Rabbi Judah HaNasi, teach, “Make God’s will your will, so that God will make your will the Divine will.” (Pirke Avot 2.4) This notion is elaborated by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi when he teaches about our possible role as “the hands of God.” We can do God’s work in the world.

For some, knowing God is the process of understanding the many religious perspectives of humanity and sensing the dynamics and stimuli for religious belief. They may appreciate the definition of religion offered by the philosopher George Santayana: “Religion is an expression of aesthetic value as are poetry and myth; God is the highest symbol of humanity’s highest ideals.”

Or, they may prefer the approach of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan: “God is the life of the universe: immanent as the parts act upon each other, transcendent as the whole acts upon each part.” Or, they may find meaning in the suggestion by William James that religion is the response of people who sense the Divine, that is, “an undifferentiated sense of reality”—an undefinable, non-empirical feeling of a Presence.

Some people approach the question of God as a choice, but I think that, for people of faith, there is no choice. If one senses that there is a Divine Presence, then one has no choice but to yearn for clarity and hope for a conscious relationship with It. When one senses the Divine Presence, one feels the imperative to seek understanding and connection—to know God.