Not so long ago, I wrote that once we get past the list of Ya’akov’s family at the beginning of Shemot (Names!?!), the Torah makes a point of not mentioning any more Jews by name (until later in the story). Artfully, neither Moshe, his parents nor his sister are identified by name when we first meet them. In order to create a contrast, the only names we encounter would seem to be Shifrah and Puah, the two Egyptian midwives (following Midrash Tadshe 21, Arbabanel and other commentators, who I had shown to almost certainly be correct on the peshat level, that they were not Jewish).
What I did not note then was that another Name is missing in this early part of the book: In her Studies in Shemot, my teacher Nechama Liebowitz, z”l, relates that not only is God’s name not mentioned, He doesn’t even appear in this story of the Jews’ enslavement at all. She also points out that when – in response to the Jewish cries – He finally does appear, He does so with great fanfare, such that the Torah repeats His name over and over again (2:22-25). But what are all of these very artful literary patterns actually telling us?
The reason I gave for the Jews’ namelessness was, that “to the Egyptians, the Israelites’ names did not matter. To them, they were mere numbers. For this is the way slaves are often viewed, and it is the way oppressed peoples are viewed as well.” But what about God? The Egyptians’ attitude towards the Jews may well have affected how the Jews looked at themselves – we all know how strongly others’ perceptions influence, and sometimes even control, how we perceive ourselves. But even if the Egyptians viewed the Jewish God as of no consequence, surely that did not affect God’s perception of Himself!
I think the answer is that even if God cannot change, our perception of Him can. In fact, not only can it change, it can disappear altogether. Hence God’s absence in this narrative. This would also help explain why it took so long for the Jews’ to cry out. Here I am not talking about lack of belief in God, but lack of awareness. As if we are not aware of Him, our intellectual belief becomes almost irrelevant.
We know from the Holocaust how difficult it was to remain connected to God under inhuman conditions, conditions in which man’s creation in the image of God was completely ignored. But we also know from the Holocaust that this connection is not only possible, it is perhaps the best strategy to maintain one’s own humanity – meaning, one’s name. Hence what finally led to the Jews’ total namelessness was their own retreat from God. As with the Holocaust, there were tremendous pressures that caused them to retreat. Yet even so – as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has argued – such a retreat backfires and only turns a terrible situation into one in which life becomes meaningless altogether.
It would seem, then, that this is precisely what the early Shemot narrative wants to drive home. When God finally does appear, He does not initiate but rather responds to the Jews’ cries to Him. At that point, He “hears, remembers, sees and knows.” But surely He did so the whole time! Apparently, God is only actively engaged when man is conscious of Him. (It is true that God does not always wait for man, and will also sometimes initiate and call to him. But He will almost only do so with those who are already conscious of Him.)
In fact, this idea is alluded to earlier in the parasha: Being a careful scholar, Nechama admitted that her claim, about God not being mentioned until the Jews cry out, was not entirely correct. God is tangentially mentioned in connection with Shifra and Puah, who are described as fearing God (1:17). Whether Egyptians or Jews, they somehow managed to hold on to their God-consciousness in a Godless society. And since they were conscious of God, God was also actively conscious of them.
Thankfully, we don’t face anything remotely similar to Egyptian bondage today. Yet many parts of our society are increasingly Godless. Our advanced technology often makes even the religious feel as if “we have solved our own problems, thank You.” What we forget is that God is not primarily a problem-solver. He is our Father, our King; our Rock and our Meaning. The early Shemot narrative shows how terrible a mistake it is not to turn to God until we have a problem; and how important it is to form, and hold on to, our relationship with Him no matter what else.