Va’Era: listening, hearing and acting in despondent and terrifying times

“I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the ETERNAL. I will free you from the labours of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the ETERNAL, am your God who freed you from the labours of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land which I sworeto Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I the ETERNAL.” But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.” Exodus 6:5-9

Twice now we hear that God hears the groaning of the Israelites – At the burning bush God tells Moses “I have marked well the plight of My people in Egypt and have heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters; yes, I am mindful of their sufferings……”  Now the cry of the Israelites has reached Me; moreover, I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them. (Exodus 3:7,9), yet at no point does the bible record the Israelites calling out to God for help to save them from their slavery in Egypt. Yet God hears them and decides to act to help them.

This contrasts painfully with the lack of listening that the Israelites themselves do. When Moses speaks to them of his encounter with God, and the re-entry of God into their narrative, they refuse to listen to him. They  are too fully absorbed in the misery of their existence to contemplate anything beyond it.

The text plays repeatedly with miscommunication, with what is said, or listened to, or heard or understood. God hears what is not cried out. Moses pleads his inability to speak well to others. Pharoah chooses not to understand the import of the signs and wonders being inflicted on his people and land. He too is fully absorbed in retaining and growing his own power to notice what else is happening around him. Again and again he is forced into accepting a version of the request of the Israelite people, to go and worship God in the wilderness, only to retract his agreements shortly afterwards.

What we come to understand is that listening and understanding are both active and committed behaviours. While one can communicate without intending to do so, it is also possible to be exposed to the communication of others without taking on board what it is that they are communicating. One can hear the silent pain of others and yet miss the explicit and direct words shared with us.

When Moses brings the message from God to the Israelites, the message of freedom from slavery, they do not hear him – and the bible explains that they are crushed by their conditions, have no ability to think beyond their misery.

Listening and understanding are active behaviours of commitment to the other. It is not enough to just skim the surface of communication, gleaning sufficient though scant information in order to continue one side of a conversation.  Listening is an act of will, paying attention takes effort, being present in communication is not the easy route.

The Israelites are consumed by their conditions, exhausted by the effort they must put in just to survive. They cannot hear the voice of freedom even when it speaks directly to them. God has to try another way to get their attention, as well as the attention of their oppressors.

We are living in a world undergoing pandemic, where almost everyone is giving their attention to negotiating the unknowable. After almost two years of this “new normal”, many of us are exhausted, many burned out, many in more fragile situations in work or in relationships, many contemplating a different way to live their lives going forward. The hard work of just keeping going means that for many of us all our attention is taken, we have no bandwidth for listening and really hearing the messages of others, no emotional capacity for even the directly spoken plea.

Yet it is important that we are able to turn our attention outside our immediate situation. Be it climate change or massively increased poverty, increasing political corruption or the desolation of the many bereaved people – we have to lift our heads and begin to pay attention. To listen to the pain of others even if not directed to us. To commit to understanding and engaging with the problems our world is facing, even if we would rather just keep our heads down and plough on.

When God sends the signs – seven of which appear in this sidra – they are signs not just to Pharaoh, but to everyone, from Hebrew slave to Egyptian courtiers. They are attention grabbing reminders that the world needs us to pay attention, that the vulnerable and the frightened need us to pay attention, that the people treated unjustly need us to pay attention.

In the beginning of this sidra God tells Moses” I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name”

Much is written about the names of God here, but I am minded to pay attention this year to the words of Saadia Gaon who said that the shin of Shaddai is a preposition, so the word is really She’ Dai – The One Who said to the world “Enough”

Standing up and being prepared to say “Enough” takes courage, presence, commitment and deep attention. And it is something we also need to be doing. Saying “enough” to the facts of extreme poverty in rich nations, of frightened refugees preferring to risk their lives because there are no proper secure or legal routes to safely. Saying “enough” to those who would grab resources for themselves at the expense of other peoples. Saying “enough” to corruption in government, to legislation designed to remove rights, to legislation designed to erase history

We are all tired and frightened and uncertain in this pandemic time, but if we don’t begin to pay attention to what else is happening while Covid 19 rampages through the globe, if we don’t stand up and say “enough” to human beings living in terrible conditions with little hope of change, then we are not paying attention to our texts. The ten signs God sends to Egypt increase in severity and terror. God has to find a way to be heard. And if we just stop and listen for the still small voice of our texts and traditions, we will hear and understand and gather the strength to be who we need to be.

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