Fathers can be enigmatic people. Does any child ever really know his or her father? To a young child, even the most engaged and loving fathers can sometimes have a mystique of aloofness about them–a towering figure with a vague past and strange comings and goings from the grown-up world, whose thoughts and motives can sometimes be a mystery. There are those precious moments, though, when the father will break this veil of aloofness, bend himself down to his child’s size and be like a brother or friend, enjoying toys together, drawing together, playing videogames together, or joking together. It is a happy occasion when a father can relate with his child as another child would, but that is not what defines fatherhood.
In Parsha Shemot, at the start of the book of Exodus we begin to see Hashem portray himself very differently throughout the rest of the Torah as he did in the preceding first book of the Bible. In Genesis, Hashem seemed much like a man, and people in Genesis would often confuse him for one. In Exodus, we begin to see more distinctly the aspects of a transcendent, ineffable Deity. No longer is he walking through the garden in the cool of the day, coming down to Babel to see the sights, paying a visit to chat with his friend Abraham, or getting into scuffles with Jacob. Now he separates himself within burning bushes, mountaintop storms, tabernacle veils and–perhaps most opaquely of all–within the scroll of Torah mitzvot. As Robert Alter writes, “God in Exodus has become essentially unseeable, overpowering, and awesomely refulgent. . . . His sheer power as supreme deity and His implacablity against those who would thwart His purpose emerge as the most salient aspects of the divine character.” Only Moses might speak directly to Hashem and only Moses, under adequate protections and protocols, may get a glimpse of his back as he walks away . . . maybe. At this point in the biblical narrative, God is no longer a god, but “Our Father” whom no man has seen.
But being a Father, he loves his children, and like any earthly father will boldly come to their aid when they cry loud enough, long enough. Shemot shows this in Exodus 2:23-25, translated by Alter as
[T]he Israelites groaned from the bondage and cried out, and their plea from the bondage went up to God. And God heard their moaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Issac, and with Jacob. And God saw the Israelites, and God knew.
Most biblical translations–from the Septuagint to contemporary interpretations–fail to capture the minimalist eloquence of this section. Translators have insisted on adding an elaboratory verb and/or indirect object, e.g. “had respect unto them”, “took knowledge of them”, “took notice of them”, “was concerned about them”, etc. The result of this elaboration is, ironically, a loss of the sense of personality and pathos from Hashem. He hears, he remembers, he sees, and he knows. He just knows. Any sort of limiting definition on how he knows falls short since he knows in every possible way what the cries of Israel entail.
Here we see not some impersonal Force, not some deistic “unmoved mover” or gnostic Monad or eastern Samsara wheel. Here he manifests himself as a Person, and not just a Person, but a Father, one who hears the cries and frustration of his children . . . all his children, all their cries, and all the frustration they have and will ever have over every injustice and tragedy and bad break they suffer–Jew and Gentile, from the beginning to the end of the age. And he knows.
If God thus knows all our sufferings in perfect detail, then all suffering becomes his suffering. Only in this way can Hashem be understood and palatable in this present age between the two fires of 20th century atrocities and the coming Great Tribulation. He must be understood not as some heavenly detached and impartial potentate but as someone also grieved by affliction and also protesting injustice in the world. As Jürgen Moltmann writes in The Crucified God, “When God becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth, he not only enters into the finitude of man, but in his death on the cross also enters into the situation of man’s godforsakenness,” and “He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him,” and also “When the crucified Jesus is called ‘the image of the invisible God,’ the meaning is that THIS is God, and God is like THIS.” Hashem knows because, in the person of Yeshua our messiah, he too was a child of Israel who also groaned and cried out in the midst of affliction. As he rescued Israel from Egypt and exalted Yeshua from the grave, so too may our Father in Heaven have mercy and favor on us.