The Torah introduces the story of God’s revelation to Moshe at the burning bush, in which He instructed Moshe to lead Benei Yisrael to freedom from Egyptian bondage, by telling that God heard Benei Yisrael’s cries. This brief introduction concludes, “God saw the Israelites, and God knew” (2:25).
Different explanations have been offered for the ambiguous phrase, “va-yeida Elokim” (“God knew’). Rav Saadya Gaon and Rabbenu Chananel explain the verb “va-yeida” in this verse to mean mercy and compassion. The concept underlying this interpretation, it would seem, is that compassion is about “knowing” – truly understanding another person’s plight and knowing what he is going through. Generally, even as we recognize a person’s hardship, we fail to “know” his condition, his struggles and his pain. Compassion requires thorough and precise “knowledge” of another person’s condition, and thus the verb “va-yeida” here refers to pity and empathy.
Rashi explains along somewhat similar lines, writing that God “paid attention to them, and did not ignore them.” According to Rashi, “va-yeida” refers to God’s being mindful, as it were, of Benei Yisrael’s suffering, to the fact that their plight was always at the forefront of His “consciousness,” so-to-speak, and He was thus determined to rescue them.
Ibn Ezra explains “va-yeida Elokim” to mean that God saw what others could not. Namely, He took note even of the suffering Benei Yisrael endured in private, away from public view. The Egyptians tormented Benei Yisrael both publicly, in the mud pits and at the constructions sites, where they were forced to perform backbreaking labor, but also in hiding. God knew the full extent of Benei Yisrael’s pain, as He was able to see the oppression that occurred out of public view.
An insightful explanation of this phrase is offered by Seforno, who writes that “va-yeida Elokim” relates to the previous verse, which tells that God heard Benei Yisrael’s cries. The Torah now adds that God saw the sincerity of the people’s prayers and cries. As He sees what is in people’s minds and hearts, God recognized that their pleas were heartfelt, and not just mere lip service. Benei Yisrael beseeched God with all their heart and soul, and God “knew” the sincerity of their pleas and thus accepted their prayers.
In a generally similar vein, Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel explains this verse to mean that God “knew” of the people’s repentance. Although the people did not outwardly appear to undergo any process of repentance and change, internally, and in the privacy of their homes, the people indeed underwent this process. Only God knew of the invisible changes unfolding among Benei Yisrael, and thus the Torah tells, “va-yeida Elokim,” that God lovingly accepted the people’s unseen repentance. Even though their repentance marked only the initial stirrings of change, and did not fundamentally transform their conduct, nevertheless, even these first steps were valuable and precious in the eyes of the Almighty, who responded by triggering the process of redemption.