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Friday, December 31, 2010

Parshat Va'era: Speech, Hearing and Redemption

This week's parashah/portion is Va'era (Exodus/Shemot 6:2 – 9:35).  The Israelites are still enslaved in Egypt and the conversation between God and Moses in Egypt continues.  God continues to instruct Moses on how to bring about the people's redemption.  However, Moses is 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 or that his speech is not complete or whole.  In short, he believes that he is not up to the task.

His reaction is something to which many of us can relate.  How often in our own lives believed we were unprepared for the task that lies before us.  Yet, one might imagine that, even if Moses felt unworthy or unprepared, he would have trusted God's judgment and God’s ability make the correct choice. However, it appears that this is not the case.

Moses tries to convince God that God has the wrong man.  Because of this, some commentators have proposed that Moses is one of three characters in the narrative that block God's message of redemption.  According to Aviva Zornberg, in her book The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus, the other two “characters who try to block God’s communication are Pharaoh and the Israelites.

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

Moses, on the other hand, tries to block God's message by claiming to be an unfit messenger.  Moses tried once already to be God's voice. When he did so, Pharaoh laughed in his and, by extension, God's face (see Ex. 5:2).  Why should Pharaoh listen to Moses now?  Beyond that, why should the people listen to him after their labor was increased by Pharaoh following Moses' first request to free them?

However, Zornberg points out, Moses does not base his reluctance to speak on the actions of Pharaoh, but on his inability to make the people listen.  He claims to be of “uncircumcised lips,” so; neither Pharaoh nor the people will listen to him.  The great 19th century Hassidic master, the Sefat Emet, interprets Moses' as saying: "They (Pharaoh and the people) would not listen, THEREFORE, I am of uncircumcised lips."  This interpretation turns the usual one on its head.  Rather than the orator’s speech creating, or failing to create, listeners, it is the inability or unwillingness of people to listen that creates his 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 willing to hear, can he really say anything?  Moses's answer to this is obviously an unqualified ‘no!’ 

The Zohar (mystical commentary on the Torah) calls this phenomenon "the exile of the word."  In Zornberg’s words,  "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 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?  God answer to this is in the affirmative.  If it were up to Moses, redemption may never have come, or certainly, it would have come at a much later date.  God is clearly the power that makes for redemption in this narrative.  But God is also the power that ultimately gives Moses the power to speak in the face of the deafness of Pharaoh and the people. 

However, God is also the Source of our ability to hear and listen.  Pharaoh's unwillingness to even consider that there could be any power greater than he is what prevents him from being able to hear.  This self-imposed deafness continues until his first born son is dead and the sea has destroyed his army.  However, the Israelites do eventually listen and hear. At least temporarily.

It is said that when we truly communicate with one another, we can see the face (and hear the voice) of God.  God is also the source within us all to truly hear and speak to one another.  God is the power that makes for speech and understanding.  Without the 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 specific 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.  God is the power that connects us to one another.  God is the power that works through us to create the ability to speak and hear clearly, both metaphorically and literally. If we stop and pay attention to all that is within and around us, the Divine is the source or our ability to connect with the universe.

Pharaoh was unable, or unwilling to understand this (who hardened his heart will need to be discussed at another time).  This ultimately brought about his annihilation.  The Israelites were unable to comprehend this reality until after they were released from the bonds of slavery.  Of course, even then they had difficulties and needed constant reminders of God’s presence.  Moses finally understood this after his encounters with God in this week's parashah and even more so after the exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Sinai. 

We each have the ability – and responsibility – to bring Divinity into the world through 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 and hearing has been exiled too often in our history.  It is up to us to make certain that they remain firmly put and that they continue to be redeemed and to bring about redemption now and in the future.

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