The Challenge Of Knowledge
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The Challenge Of Knowledge

Candlelighting, Readings
Shabbat candles: 4:58 p.m.
Torah: Ex. 10:1-13:16
Haftarah: Jeremiah 46:13-28
Havdalah: 6:00 p.m..

The Bible often hints at the underlying meaning of a passage by employing key words that repeat throughout the passage. The root “yadoa” (yod/daleth/ayin) — “to know” — appears about 20 times in the story of the Exodus, and in each case it appears at a crucial juncture in the narrative.

The first place that yadoa appears is Exodus 1:8: “Va-yakom melekh hadash, asher lo yada et Yosef” (“a new king arose who did not know Joseph”), a verse whose meaning was debated in the Talmud. Rav believed, literally, that a different pharaoh took the throne who, unlike his predecessor, did not personally know Joseph. Shmuel suggested, however, that it was the same pharaoh (from the Genesis segment of the Joseph narrative), and this pharaoh did indeed know Joseph personally. In what sense, then, was it written that he did he not “know” Joseph? Shmuel explains that pharaoh, by promulgating decrees against the Hebrews, acted as if he did not know Joseph, let alone what Joseph did.

The Babylonian amora, Rav Avin, provides logical support for Shmuel’s reading. Rav Avin poses a rhetorical question: whether pharaoh was new or not, how could it be possible that he did not know Joseph? After all, Joseph was legendary in Egypt for saving the people from starvation through long-term economic planning.

It is clear, then, that this verse is not commenting on pharaoh’s personal familiarity with Joseph, but, rather, on pharaoh’s character. Not that pharaoh did not know Joseph personally, but rather that pharaoh refused to acknowledge the good that Joseph did for the Egyptian nation. The root “yadoa” is not just about knowledge, but about how a person acts in response to that knowledge. It is not just about intellectual cognition, but acknowledgment.

The root “yadoa” takes on a similar meaning in Exodus 5:2, when pharaoh refuses to allow the Israelite slaves to worship God in the wilderness, with pharaoh stating, “lo yadati et Hashem, ve-gam et Yisrael lo ashaleah” (“I do not acknowledge the Lord, and therefore will not let Israel go”). Just as pharoah did not acknowledge the good that Joseph did for Egypt, he does not acknowledge Joseph’s God and the needs of the Israelite nation, refusing to accord them the right of religious worship. It is only the experience of the plagues and the miracles that prompts the recognition by pharaoh and the Egyptians. As God declares to Moses, “Ve-yadeu Mitzrayim ki Ani Hashem” (“and the Egyptians shall acknowledge that I am the Lord, when I stretch out My hand over Egypt and bring out the Israelites from their midst.” [Exodus 7:5].)

And finally, in the opening verses of this week’s Torah reading, God informs Moses that the very reason for the plagues is not only that the Egyptians experience and acknowledge the God of Israel but that the nation of Israel does so as well. As God instructs Moses using our keyword “yadoa” — “v’yedatem ki ani hashem” ( “and You shall know that I am the Lord”) [Exodus 10:2] — the most important result of the signs of Egypt must be that the nation of Israel acknowledges God.

The story of the Exodus from Egypt is not merely about knowledge or even faith. It is about the challenge of knowledge — how we act in response to what we know or believe. The pharaoh of the oppression refused to acknowledge Joseph or Joseph’s God, actively oppressing the Hebrew people as part of that disregard. Nevertheless, at this very same time, the nation of Israel was born — a nation born of acknowledgment, of appreciation for salvation and of a commitment to live a life of sanctity and morality. As God declares [Ex. 6:7], the result of Redemption must be: “V’yedatem ki ani Hashem Elokeikhem” (“and you shall acknowledge that I the Lord am your God who freed you from Egyptian bondage”). To know God is to acknowledge God, not only through belief and word but through action.

Proudly acknowledging who we are, what we have learned from our history and therefore how we must shape our lives to make the world a better place is the lesson of “yadoa” in the Exodus story. 

Rachel Friedman  is dean of Lamdeinu (lamdeinu.org), the center for adult Torah learning in Teaneck, N.J.

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