By Rabbi Aryeh Meir
The previous parashah ends with the failure of Moshe’s first attempt to free the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. Moshe reiterates his earlier doubts about his ability to lead saying, “for what reason have you sent me… You have not rescued your people!” (Exodus 5:22-23). God then repeats the promise made at the burning bush regarding the covenant with the patriarchs and the certainty of the coming liberation from bondage: “Therefore, say to the Children of Israel; I am YHWH; I will bring you out from beneath the burdens of Egypt, I will rescue you from servitude to them, I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, with great acts of judgment…I will bring you into the land… (and) I will give it to you as a possession” (Exodus 6:6-8).
Why the repetition? Moshe, so unsure of himself, and having confronted the Egyptian despot and seen his unshakeable will and the suffering that he can mete out, needs to hear that the One who said “I will be there with you” at the bush, the God of his ancestors, will be there to insure that the promise is fulfilled.
But when Moshe informs the people of God’s words, “they did not hearken to Moshe, out of shortness of spirit and out of hard servitude.” They could not hear what he was saying. They were not ready, physically and emotionally, to be redeemed.
The Sefat Emet (Reb Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger) explains that “the prophet prophesies by the power of those who listen.” Because of their suffering and because of their involvement in Egyptian culture, the people were unable to hear the call to redemption. Not only were they in exile, but “speech was in exile as long as those who were to receive Torah had not yet readied themselves to hear the word of God.”
The Sefat Emet continues: “Hearing requires being empty of every thing.” Being able to hear the word of prophecy is predicated on being open, on not having a mind and heart so full that there is no space left for the word of God… This is the essence of exile today as well: our inability to empty ourselves, to forget this world’s vanities so that we empty the heart to hear God’s word without any distracting thought.” The Children of Israel “walked amid the idols of Egypt” and therefore were not ready to be redeemed.
And so is it with us, walking amid the idols of America, so full of ideas, of distraction, of the noise of our civilization. In his commentary to the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Arthur Green writes, “Anything that keeps us from hearing the divine voice, our over involvement in the vanity that occupies most of our attention in this world and keeps us from being empty enough to receive the word of God – all that is our idolatry.”
For us, the voice of God comes to us from our engagement with Torah, from our ability to be open to its teachings and then to translate those teaching to the times in which we live.
We need to put ourselves in Moshe’s place. The One who spoke to Moshe, “I am YHWH” still speaks to us, if we are able to hear. The Sefat Emet concludes his commentary with these words, “Each day we say: ‘Hear, O Israel…”; this is the voice saying: “I am YHWH your God”; it has never stopped. But we have to prepare ourselves to truly hear the Shema without any distracting thought.”
Moshe was able to hear the words addressed to him, words that he translated into actions that moved his people from servitude to redemption.
The words of prophecy are addressed to each of us, in a particular way. They are contained in the teachings of Torah. But we need to be able to hear them as Torah.
To do this we need to remove all distraction, to empty our minds of our personal idolatries, and find a contemplative place in our lives. We need to carve out moments everyday when we can be alone, walk in a park or garden, or sit quietly and empty our mind of all thought. Only in such a place will be able to truly hear the word and then be prepared to move from prayer and contemplation into life.
Citations are from The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger. Translated and Interpreted by Arthur Green. JPS, Philadelphia, 1998. This is an abridged, bilingual edition.
Rabbi Aryeh Meir is spiritual leader of the West Clarkstown Jewish Center in Spring Valley, New York and teaches at The Academy for Jewish Religion, The Bronfman Center at the 92nd Street Y, and at the JCC of Rockland.