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.

Vayetzei: The Importance of Awe

Jacob awoke from his sleep and said “Surely God is in this place and I, I did not know”. He has a sense of wonder, and he expresses it:  “How full of awe is this place. This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven”

The phrase “Ma nora ha’makom ha’zeh, ein zeh ki im beit Elohim” (How full of awe is this place, this is none other than the house of God”) is part of the stonework on the exterior of the synagogue I   grew  up in, and as one walked in and looked up, that is the sentiment one felt – even though it is situated in what is now inner city Bradford, on a less than salubrious road.

The religious message I received as a child was bound up in this synagogue, in the community of people and in the building they worshipped in. It was a two-fold message- Firstly that we can encounter God wherever we are, for God is always ‘in this place’ as are we, and often we do not notice how close God can be to us.

Secondly it was made clear that awe is a necessary instinct;  God is beyond our comprehension or reason, and we must respect that reality. We have to live with not being able to control God or demand from God or expect to understand God.

When we pray, what are we really doing?

Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) was a scholar, theologian and social activist. He wrote “the predicament of prayer is twofold: not only do we not know how to pray, we do not know what to pray for.  We have lost the ability to be shocked.”

Heschel also suggested that we have overemphasized intellectual ideas when we think about religion, and that we also overemphasise religious belief; For Heschel religion is more like a way of being in the world, a way of facing life and dealing with it.

In Judaism, ‘Believing’ is not the most important thing for a religious Jew, but Awe, or the ability to be shocked is the fundamental requirement.  The bible talks of the religious person as one who is yirat Adonai, or yirat shamayim – in awe of God or in awe of heaven. Without a sense of awe, without the ability to be shocked or moved by what we see around us, we can never really move on to encounter God, or develop a sense of faith.

I have lost count of the number of times that I have been told in my rabbinate that someone doesn’t really believe in God;  the number of apologies that somehow come my way. I never quite know as a rabbi how to help people to believe in God if that is what they think they want, but what I am sure of is that the beginning of such a journey is Awe.

When Jacob first encounters God he notices how the place is filled with Awe, and he had not understood it. It takes time, and possibly even a certain vulnerability for us to open ourselves to noticing God.

Many of our services begin with the phrase “v’ani tefilati lecha Adonai eit ratzon” usually translated as “and as for me, let my prayer come before you God at a favourable time”, but it is more complex than that, meaning something more like and I am my prayer to you God at a favourable time”. We are in fact our own prayers – if only we would let ourselves be so. Rabbi Lionel Blue once wrote “Meeting God can be simple, but nothing can happen if we do not will it. If we seek God then God can be found. God will allow us to find God if we seek with all our will” (RSGB Machzor p 312)

 

One of the lessons from this sidra is how easy it is not to notice how close God can be to us if we do not choose to open ourselves to the possibility.  And we sometimes need help to do this. Beautiful places, whether natural or built by human beings, can help us catch the numinous. Too narrow a focus on what we are doing, our goals and aspirations, our desire not to look back – all can stop us being aware and in the moment.

The ability to be shocked, to notice and to understand the implications of what has become normalised – this is the skill we need to nurture. The ability to be moved by what we see and hear, rather than to blot it out or cover it with our own inner monologue. Jacob left his comfort zone when he left his home, and only then did he meet God. We may not need to leave our homes, but we too need to go out as he did – vayetzei – and begin to pay attention to all we have ignored.bradford interior