Justice, Religion

The vort for Va'era: Hearing and Redemption

So… Moshe doesn’t seem to be getting off to a great start. He follows God’s instructions to confront Pharaoh and Pharaoh blows him off, making life worse for the Israelites. On his way out of the palace, Moshe gets an earful from the Israelite overseers themselves (“…you have given the Egyptians a sword with which to kill us.” 5:21). Finally, Moshe goes to back to God to “debrief” and God responds like the somewhat delusional, embattled coach down by thirty points against an unbeaten rival team: “We’ve got him just where we want him!”
And then we get to this week’s portion-Va’era.
Va’era (the word literally means “and I revealed Myself”) begins with a speech by God to Moshe. The first goal of the speech is to reassure Moshe that God will actually redeem Israel and bring them to the Promised Land-since God promised that Land to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God also reassures Moshe, that he, Moshe, is still the favored leader and uniquely qualified savior of Israel. (The first thing God says to Moshe is: “I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name YHWH.” (6:3) Finally, and more subtly, God reveals to Moshe the key to justice in the world-Divine and human.

After reassuring Moshe of his unique role in this project, God says the following: “I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant.” (6:5) This verse spoken by God, reinforces the earlier statement in chapter 2:24 said about God: “God heard their moaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” God’s hearing, here, is in direct contrast with Pharaoh’s not hearing in the previous chapter.
Just one chapter back, after Pharaoh dismisses Moshe and increases the burden on the Israelite slaves (by forcing them to search for their own straw yet still supply the same quota of bricks), the Israelite overseers appear before Pharaoh in an attempt to appeal his decision. “Then the foremen of the Israelites came to Pharaoh and cried: ‘Why do you deal thus with your servants? No straw is issued to your servants, yet they demand of us: Make bricks! Thus your servants are being beaten, when the fault is with your own people.'” (5:15-16) The Israelite overseers cry out to Pharaoh and Pharaoh turns a deaf ear to them. “He replied, ‘You are shirkers, shirkers! That is why you say, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to the LORD.’ Be off now to your work! No straw shall be issued to you, but you must produce your quota of bricks!'” (5:17-18) God reacts differently. When Moshe comes to God in utter frustration about how things went with Pharoah, God says: “I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant.” (6:5)
It is the fact that God heard, actually heard the cries of the Israelite slaves that led to their redemption. This stark dialectic is codified in the laws later in the book of Exodus.
You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans. (Exodus 22:20-23)
Since you were strangers in the land Egypt you are enjoined from ignoring the cries of the marginal, the widows and the orphans. The reason for this is not that the lesson learned from oppression is compassion. Wouldst that this were true. Rather, the lesson you should have learned in Egypt is that if you do not hear the cry of the oppressed, God will – and then… watch out. “Your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans.” Nachmanides, the twelfth century Andalusian Sage, articulates this very forcefully:

For you were strangers in the land of Egypt. […] What is correct, in my understanding is that [God] says: “‘you shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him’ and think that he has no one to save him from your hands, for you know that you were strangers in the land of Egypt and I saw the manner in which the Egyptians oppressed you (cf. Exodus 3:9) and I wreaked vengeance upon them, for I see ‘the tears of the oppressed with none to comfort them; and the power of their oppressors-with none to comfort them.’ (Ecclesiastes 4:1) I, however, save all people from those stronger than them (cf. Psalms 35:10). So, too, ‘you shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan,’ (Exodus 22:21) for I will hear their cries, for all these people do not have faith in themselves, but they can have faith in Me.”

There is amazing insight into the psychology of the oppressed in this comment. Oppressed populations – the Biblical “strangers and widows and orphans” – think that the power structure is such that they cannot get out from under their oppression. This is what Egypt stands for. The Egyptians were so sure that there was no one who would stand up for the Israelite slaves that Pharaoh dismissed Moshe with an insult: “Who is God that I should listen to him?” Pharaoh’s arrogance was such that he was sure that nobody, not even God would stand up to him to protect the Israelite slaves. Pharaoh was so important and the Israelites were so marginal, irrelevant. Yet, God did hear the Israelites’ cries and the Egyptians’ wives were made into widows and their children became orphans.
Ultimately, this law – “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him,” – is a reminder, perhaps even a threat, that the lesson of Egypt is that you must heed the cry of the oppressed because if you don’t, God will and then things won’t work out so well. The oppressed are not as weak as they themselves might think they are. If you don’t come to the aid of the poor, they will still be aided. You, however, won’t be so lucky. On the other hand, it is the choice to hear the cry of the oppressed that is a choice to be like God. Hearing the cry of the poor, the marginal, is the first step towards redemption.
This demand, the demand to hear, the necessity of hearing, of not ignoring is the key to redemption. It is, dare I say, the meaning of the Exodus. It is a constant challenge and opportunity. Every day we are faced with cries which we can hear or ignore. Every day we are forced to choose to act like God or like Pharoah.
This choice is not in Heaven, it is right in front of us. The cries we hear come from one hundred senior Boston Hyatt housekeepers, fired on August 31 after being required to train their replacements who were to be paid minimum wage. The cries we hear come from neighborhoods in South and East Los Angeles where it is nigh impossible to buy healthy food and as a result the diabetes and obesity rates are twice that in the more affluent areas of West Los Angeles. The cries we hear come from the homeless folks who live on our streets because there is not enough affordable housing, jobs with living wages and affordable health care. We all have to choose every day – will I act like God, and hear the cry? Or will I act like Pharaoh and walk on by?
(Originally a post of Today’s Torah of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies.)

One thought on “The vort for Va'era: Hearing and Redemption

  1. A lot of the oppressed you mention in the last paragraph are in that situation because they have no leverage. They have no leverage because America allows millions of legal and illegal immigrants in to come and take their jobs (yes, I do believe it is THEIR jobs since THEY are citizens).
    Interesting situation. What “oppressed” group should Jews support. The immigrant stranger or the poor citizen? Interesting conundrum

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