We read in Parashat Shemot of how God heard Benei Yisrael’s cries as they suffered under bondage in Egypt, whereupon He appeared to Moshe and sent him back to Egypt to lead Benei Yisrael to freedom. The Torah writes: “God saw the Israelites, and God knew” (2:25).
Different interpretations have been offered for the expression, “va-yeida Elokim” (“and God knew”). Rav Saadia Gaon and Rabbeinu Chananel understood “va-yeida” to mean not “knew,” but rather “pitied.” Rashi explains, “He paid attention to them and did not ignore them.” Ibn Ezra suggests reading the verse to mean that God “saw” the oppression suffered by Benei Yisrael out in the open, and He “knew” of the suffering they endured at the hands of the Egyptians in private, which was not known to anybody else. Seforno writes that God “knew” that the people’s prayers were sincere and wholehearted.
Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel translates the phrase “va-yeida Elokim” as, “It was revealed before Him the repentance which they performed in private, which people did not know about each other.” According to Targum Yonatan, the Torah refers here to the nation’s indiscernible repentance. Outwardly, it did not appear as though the people changed their conduct or their character, but God “knew” that the people indeed repented privately, and He lovingly accepted this private repentance and proceeded to begin the process of redemption.
How might we understand this reference to private repentance? What does Targum Yonatan mean when it speaks of the people repenting in a manner that was known only to God?
The explanation, perhaps, is that Benei Yisrael did not undergo the kind of fundamental transformation that teshuva ideally requires. They did not change their conduct to such an extent that they appeared as drastically different people. Their repentance was slight and subtle, and hence indiscernible. The change occurred mainly within their minds and hearts, and was thus visible only to the Almighty.
If so, then Targum Yonatan’s translation of this verse teaches that even small, modest measures of teshuva are significant and valuable. While we must, of course, always strive to perfect ourselves, and we indeed pray three times each day, “hachazireinu bi-tshuva sheleima lefanekha” – “bring us back to You in complete repentance,” nevertheless, every small step we take is cherished by God. The most effective change is gradual change, a long-term process of modest, incremental steps towards improvement, each one of which is significant and precious. God brought redemption to our ancestors in Egypt when, according to Targum Yonatan, He saw just the initial, internal stirrings of teshuva – teaching us that every small step we take towards self-improvement is inestimably valuable and lovingly accepted.