by Arthur Strimling
January 19, 2013
A long time ago a Jewish kid from Long Island, Paul Simon, wrote a great song that included the couplet:
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
It’s a distinction that goes to the heart of Judaism. Our central prayer begins:
Sh’ma Yisroel … Listen, Israel.
We say Sh’ma at every service not because it’s easy for us to listen to God. We say it because it’s hard. We need to remind ourselves over and over and over again. Listen!
On one level a story of the Exodus is the story of learning to speak and listen. There are four parties here: God, the Hebrew people, Moses and Pharaoh. And at the beginning of Exodus no one in listening to anyone.
Lets begin with God. It takes God 400 years to hear the cry of the enslaved Hebrew people; that is some kind of not listening, and in Torah study we had some great discussion around what that is about.
Then the people. In Exodus 6, after his first attempt to talk to Pharaoh fails miserably, the Israelites turn on Moses so viciously that God tells him to ignore the them and go speak to Pharaoh, as if he would listen better. Why are the people so hopeless? Why can they not hear the hope of freedom?
The midrash see the answer in the condition of slavery. In Chapter 6, verse 9, Torah says, ‘Moses spoke to the people, but they did not listen out of lack of spirit and hard work.” Out of lack of spirit and hard work. The Hebrew for lack of spirit is katzer ruach, which literally means ‘shortness of breath.’ They were worked so hard, oppressed so heavily, so terrorized that they literally could not draw a deep breath. Their breathing was panicky, like this. I asked Lisa to revive for today Ellen’s practice of a few years ago of having us all take a couple of deep breaths before we said the Sh’ma, to remind ourselves, if only unconsciously, that we are not slaves, we are not short of breath. We have the breath, the space, the choice to listen.
According to the midrash, one condition of slavery, is an inability to hear the message of freedom, to imagine the possibility of freedom. Imprisoned in a condition the Zohar calls ‘the exile of language,’ the Israelites yearn to hear but cannot hear, cannot imagine or act on behalf of saving themselves. They cannot believe they could ever be free. Freedom is nothing but an inchoate yearning. They yearn to be free, but cannot yet take the deep breath that would clear them to listen to the message. As Moses says, they are not fit for redemption. But as Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg points out, all redemption must begin in unreadiness, trauma, and discontinuity. So in one sense they are ready but Moses cannot hear that.
And Moses: He can’t yet truly hear the people, but even more devastating is that he can’t hear God either. In very human ways Moses is not listening to God. At the burning bush God tells Moses he will redeem his people. But Moses protests. He keeps saying ‘I can’t do this, get someone else.’ The midrash says he protests for a whole week at the burning bush, until God, in exasperation orders him to get on with it. And again in Chapter 6, he protests that he cannot lead because he cannot speak. The literal translation is ‘I have uncircumcised lips.’ Now resisting the call to greatness is very human, anyone who follows Spiderman knows this. But to the midrashists Moses’ modest demurrals are not only not listening, they are rebellion. Because this is God supporting Moses, saying ‘you can, you will do this.’ God, not your mother, or your best friend or your teacher or coach; this is God. In the Torah, if God says something is going to happen, it’s going to happen; it’s like 2+2=4. it’s just true. But Moses argues. Over and over he doubts himself, and thereby doubts God. In this sense, he too is not listening.
So we have a people and a leader, both of them unable to speak or to listen. This is not a promising beginning. God sets the odds heavily against us.
And Pharaoh: We all know Pharaoh does not listen. He wants nothing to change; he is invested in not listening. And we know that his willed deafness takes him so deep into denial that he becomes something like autistic. Like Macbeth who is “in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more / Returning were as tedious as go o'er.” For the last five plagues, Pharaoh crosses over to a place from which he cannot return, where his denial feeds on itself, and hurtles him toward disaster. Like Assad in Syria, or Mubarak or Gaddafi or so many other pharaonic tyrants, God is hardening his heart.
But while Pharaoh’s heart hardens, something different is happening to the Israelites. During the plagues, we do not hear about them at all. They are pawns in this great game. But privileged pawns, favored pawns. They witness the plagues; they see that after the third, the frogs, they are exempt. Flies, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts and darkness do not afflict them. Surely they are seeing that God is more powerful than Pharaoh, that God can truly work wonders and that all of this is being done for them. So now, on the night before the tenth plague they look at Moses with new eyes and hear him with new ears. And their listening frees Moses’ tongue: “Moses spoke to the people.” It is a reciprocal process, what linguistic philosophers and psychologists call a dialogic process. The quality of speaking affects the listening and the quality of listening affects the speaking.
So Moses is speaking and the people are listening. They can hear well enough to listen to very detailed instructions about slaughtering, cooking and eating a lamb or a goat, using hyssop to paint their lintels with blood, getting silver and gold from the Egyptians, and telling the story to their children. And they obey to the letter – following instructions is a kind of listening slaves are well conditioned to do. But now they are listening and acting not on behalf of a slave master, but on their own behalf on behalf of their redemption. And that is a beginning of freedom.
The speaking and listening will break down over and over again. It starts before they are out of Egypt. But a dialectic of hope and despair has replaced pure despair. Freedom, we all know, comes in fits and starts, with setbacks, doubt confusion and despair. Do you remember the first time you were truly heard by someone else? I can. And that first experience of true speaking and listening never leaves us. We have the memory of it in our bones, and we and the Israelites and Moses can return to it over and over as we move toward freedom.