by R. Ira Bedzow
And we cried (nitzak) to Hashem, the God of our fathers, and Hashem heard our voice, and saw our suffering, and our toil, and our distress.
The verses in Shemot that support this verse provide context into what motivated the beginning of our redemption from Egypt. The first verse provides depth as to what had occurred to make the Israelites cry out to Hashem. The second verse explains what Hashem heard that motivated remembering the covenant. The following three verses explain the details of how the situation in Egypt (what God saw) relates why the Israelites’ cried (what God heard).
And it came to pass in the course of those many days that the king of Egypt died; and the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage.
In the beginning of Sefer Shemot, we learn that “there arose a new melech over Egypt, who knew not Yoseph.” Rav and Shmuel disagreed as to their interpretation of this verse; one said that he was really a new king; the other said that it was the same king but he made new edicts (BT Sotah 11a). The reason for this disagreement is based on the fact that in all of Sefer Bereshit, the leader of Egypt is known as Pharoah, not as melech (mitzrayim), yet in Sefer Shemot there are times when the leader is called Pharoah and times when he is called melech. Moreover, when one looks at the beginning of Sefer Shemot, the term melech is used when the connotation is statist, and Pharoah is used when the connotation is personal.
In Ancient Egyptian, the term Pharoah (or the cognate of the term), means “great house,” and originally referred to the actual household of the king in an informal way. The term changed over time to connote the king of Egypt. Melech, on the other hand, always implies a political ruler whose subjects accept his rule (compare to the term moshel, and see Psalms 14:28). As such, when the verse states that a new melech arose, it should be understood to mean that there arose a new type of political leadership in Egypt, that did not formally recognize Yoseph’s part in the formation of the new state. Whether that ruler was in fact a new Pharoah or not is immaterial.
The idea that a new political system arose is consistent with the changes that Yoseph made in the country as seen at the end of Sefer Bereshit. It would also explain why Pharoah and Egypt suddenly saw the Israelites as a fifth column rather than simply a foreign population living in Goshen. Most importantly, it begins to explain the ideological conflict and stubbornness of Pharoah and how Moses’ request to free the Israelites could challenge the entire political infrastructure of Egypt. When it came to pass that the melech of Egypt died, the continued servitude of the Israelites crushed their hopes that the new political reality was an aberration and that the status quo ante would return. This verse provides the reason why Israel cried to Hashem, but we don’t truly appreciate the depth of that cry until the next verse.
And God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Avraham, with Yitzchak, and with Yaakov.
The previous verse says that the Israelites cried out (va’yizaku), yet this is not the same type of cry to which the verse in Deuteronomy refers, which is va’nitzak. Nor is it the same as the groaning (na’akatam) that caused God to remember His covenant with Avraham, with Yitzchak, and with Yaakov. Onkelos, however, translates groaning (na’akatam) as kabilat’hon, which, unlike a simple cry of complaint, is a lamentation where one accepts his situation as permanent. Onkelos similarly translates the cry that Hashem tells Moshe at the burning bush that He has heard from Bnei Yisrael (“tza’akat Bnei Yisrael”) (Exodus 3:7) as kabilat’hon.
This distinction teaches us a very important point, namely that the oppression that ultimately caused Israel to cry out and that caused Hashem to remember the covenant was psychological and not physical. Despite the physical hardships that the Egyptians used to afflict the Israelites, such as separating spouses, throwing sons in the Nile, and forcing them to live in an overcrowded area, only when the Israelites lost their hope of freedom did Hashem remember the covenant.