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Friday, January 15, 2010

Speech and Redemption - a Commentary on Parshat Va'era

This week's parashah is Va'era (Exodus/Shemot 6:2 – 9:35). In this parashah the conversation between God and Moses continues as God gives Moses further instructions on how to bring about the people's redemption. However, Moses seems a bit reticent. He claims that Pharaoh and the people will not listen to him because he is of "uncircumcised lips." The implication being once again that he is unable to speak clearly and that his speech is not complete or whole. In short, he is not up to the task.

This reaction is something to which many of us can relate. So many times in our lives, we may feel unequal to the task that lies before us. We fear that the task is too great. Yet, one might imagine that even if Moses felt unworthy he would have trusted God's judgment and God’s ability make the correct choice. Nevertheless, Moses does not respond that way.

Moses tries to convince God that God has the wrong man. It is for this reason that some commentators believe that Moses is one of three characters in the narrative that block God's message of redemption. As discussed in Aviva Zornberg's The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus Pharaoh, the Israelites, and Moses all try to block God's communication.

Pharaoh and the Israelites are both described in the Torah as "not listening" to God. Pharaoh has no excuse, except that he's Pharaoh and, as he says in last week's parashah, "Who is God that I should listen to God's voice?" (Ex. 5:2). The people's only excuse is that they have "shortness of spirit and hard labor." And so they are deaf to God's redemptive call.

Moses, on the other hand, tries to block God's message by stating that he is an unfit messenger. Moses tried once already to be God's voice and Pharaoh laughed in his, and, by extension, God's face (see Ex. 5:2). Why should Pharaoh listen the next time and why should the people listen after seeing their labor increase after Moses' first request of Pharaoh?

However, Zornberg points out, Moses does not base his reluctance to speak on the actions of Pharaoh, but rather on his in ability to make people listen. He is of “uncircumcised lips” and neither Pharaoh nor the people will listen to him. The great Hassidic master of the 19th century, the Sefat Emet, interprets Moses' cry to God as saying: "They (Pharaoh and the people) would not listen, THEREFORE, I am of uncircumcised lips." This interpretation turns the usual on its head. Rather than speech creating, or failing to create, listeners, it is listening, or the lack thereof, that creates the inability to speak!

If Pharaoh and the people are unwilling to listen, then it is as if Moses is unable to speak. In other words, if a prophet speaks in a desert and there is no one there to hear him (or willing to hear him) does he really say anything? Moses's answer to this seems to be an unqualified No!

The Zohar (mystical commentary on the Torah) calls this phenomenon "the exile of the word." "The dynamic of language, of communication, has failed [and] this failure is the profound meaning of exile; it encompasses the inability to hear and the inability to speak…The ears of this generation [of slaves] do not, cannot respond to living language. For this reason, Moses will not, cannot speak." (Zornberg, p. 84)

Moses is therefore faced in this parashah with the dilemma that faces so many leaders of social change throughout history. If the people are unwilling or unable to hear the message does one continue to attempt to deliver it? In our narrative the answer is yes. But that answer comes from God. If it were up to Moses redemption may never have come, or certainly it would have come at a much later date. God is the power that makes for redemption in this narrative, but God is also the power that ultimately gives Moses the power of speech even in the face of the deafness of Pharaoh and the people.

However, I believe that God also gives the people the ability to hear. Pharaoh's unwillingness to even consider that there could be any power greater than he is what prevents Pharaoh from being able to hear up until the moment when the sea is closing in around him. But the people do eventually listen and hear. At least temporarily.

It is said that when we truly communicate with one anther we can see the face and hear the voice of God. But the corollary to that is that when we communicate it is God that gives us the power to truly hear and to truly speak. God is the power that makes for speech and for understanding. Without that connection to the divine flow that links us one to the other we may speak, but our words have less meaning; we may hear, but our hearing is less attuned. That is an important message of the parashah and this particular commentary.

Though this certainly has a mystical ring to it, I also believe that it is in keeping with my understanding as a Reconstructionist (albeit one with strong mystical leanings!) of the role of God in the world. For God is the power that connects us to each other and the power that works through us to create the ability to speak and to hear clearly, both metaphorically and literally. If we stop and pay attention to all that is going on within and around us Divinity is the source or our ability to connect with the universe.

Pharaoh was unable to understand this, and it ultimately brought about his destruction. The Israelites were unable to comprehend this until they were no longer enslaved, though even then they had difficulties and needed constant reminders. Moses finally understood this after his encounters with God in this week's parashah and especially after the exodus and the revelation at Sinai.

We each have the ability – and responsibility – to bring Divinity into the world through our paying attention, speaking carefully and interacting honestly with others. The choice is ours. We can ignore this responsibility, as did Pharaoh, or we can eventually understand and accept. This can happen through using speech and actions as catalysts for change, as in the case of Moses, or via our ability to listen and to follow, as happened with the Israelites.

As the kabbalists might say, speech has been exiled too often in our history. It is up to us to make certain that it remains firmly put and that it continues to be redeemed and to bring about redemption now and in the future.

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