Rabbi Yair Robinson
Parashat Shemot 2021
This week’s portion focuses on the power of tears.
This has been a time of tears, of groans, of crying out. Who among us has not cried out, not just this week, but for months? So many tears. Tears, fundamentally, at our fellow human beings—created, like us, in God’s image—absolute failure to respect that image in others through their actions. How much pain experienced this year–in our pandemic, in the injustices perpetrated at the innocent, at the tumult of our political existence—have been because of people refusing to hear the cries of their neighbors, acting as if their choices bear no consequences?
We begin the book of Exodus, and quickly descend into oppression and slavery and the slaying of children. Moses is born and raised in privilege, but his anger and violence fail to change anything, so he flees and makes a new life. Then we read:
“A long time after that, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God.
“God heard their moaning, and God remembered God’s covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.
“God looked upon the Israelites, and God knew.”
Nearly three chapters into the book, God finally makes an appearance, hearing the na’aka, the cries of Israel. It is a powerful moment. Robert Alter, in his commentary, notes that God has been absent from the story, but now “God is the subject of a string of significant verbs: hear, remember, look, and know”. Those of us who know Biblical Hebrew know how powerful these words are; they are the words of covenant, but also the words of acknowledgment and recognition.
God hears the cry, the moan. Why is Israel crying now, that the king is dead? Because they have no hope for release or salvation. Aviva Zornberg, in her commentary, notes that “Such cries change reality”, and cites the Midrash that understands the Israelite slaves strangled and buried in the very walls they were forced to build, “the cries God hears—those cries that we have called ‘the beginning of salvation,’ the very awareness of pain, of need—have become the strangled cries of those buried in the walls…those who are lost, beyond hope.”
God hears. God remembers the covenant. God sees Israel. And God knows. Four powerful words, powerful actions, actions that we as a country and community are failing. Too many in our midst—perhaps our friends and family, perhaps even us—are deaf to the pleas of the suffering, blind to the truth, forgetful of our history and ignorant of what is necessary. When I was first writing this drash, I was thinking of the restaurant in Burbank that is crowd funding their citations, and staying open without taking any COVID precautions, careless to whom they harm. That failure to hear is bad enough. And then Wednesday came. It should have been a day to celebrate. We saw Georgia, John Lewis’ state, the state that in the last century lynched countless black men and women, as well as a Jewish man, Leo Frank, and saw the Temple in Atlanta bombed, elect a young Jewish man and a Black preacher to the Senate. That day we were supposed to watch the certification of the presidential election, a ritual that took around a half-hour four years ago, instead was the day we watched hundreds of our fellow citizens, hundreds of people who, if we are honest with ourselves, not so different from us, act on delusion, and bigotry, and hate, and the rage that can only come when you think you are Israel, but you are actually Pharaoh. What should have been a day of celebration of an orderly process of the oldest democracy became instead a parody of a putsch, no less dangerous and deadly for its farcicalness. It was also the deadliest single day of the pandemic, as an aside. It should have been a day of joy, not tears. A holy day, not a day of desecration. I should not have had to see video of our representative shouting prayers of salvation while crouched on the house gallery floor. I should not have had to have called the offices of our senators and representative just to say that I am glad they and their staffs are safe.
So, we cry out. Those afflicted with poverty and injustice cry out. Those afflicted from the pandemic cry out. They cry out the same strangled cry as the Israelites buried in the walls of slavery. We must hear it. We must see it and not look away. We must remember, truly remember. And we must know our task. It is after this knowing that God finds and addresses Moses and gives him his task to free the enslaved. We must take it as our task now. If we have already been fighting, we must continue with our words, our actions, our choices. If we up until now have stood on the sidelines, afraid, or unsure, or worried about being impolite—the time has come to stand up. To speak out. We all hear the strangled cry. It is our task to heed that cry, and to answer, that it may be the beginning of salvation for us all. Amen.
Text of Exodus 2:23ff:
וַיְהִי֩ בַיָּמִ֨ים הָֽרַבִּ֜ים הָהֵ֗ם וַיָּ֙מָת֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ מִצְרַ֔יִם וַיֵּאָנְח֧וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל מִן־הָעֲבֹדָ֖ה וַיִּזְעָ֑קוּ וַתַּ֧עַל שַׁוְעָתָ֛ם אֶל־הָאֱלֹהִ֖ים מִן־הָעֲבֹדָֽה׃
וַיִּשְׁמַ֥ע אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־נַאֲקָתָ֑ם וַיִּזְכֹּ֤ר אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־בְּרִית֔וֹ אֶת־אַבְרָהָ֖ם אֶת־יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽת־יַעֲקֹֽב׃
וַיַּ֥רְא אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַיֵּ֖דַע אֱלֹהִֽים׃ (ס)