Sometimes you have to sit where other folk sit in order to feel what they feel.
—Senator-elect Raphael Warnock, Atlanta, Georgia, USA
וַיָּ֥קָם מֶֽלֶךְ־חָדָ֖שׁ עַל־מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־יָדַ֖ע אֶת־יוֹסֵֽף׃
A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. — Exodus 1:8
כִּ֥י יָדַ֖עְתִּי אֶת־מַכְאֹבָֽיו…וָאֵרֵ֞ד לְהַצִּיל֣וֹ׃
I have known their sufferings…So I have come down — Exodus. 3:7-8
The book of Exodus begins by showing us Pharoah-nature, the nature that cannot sit where other folk sit in order to feel what they feel, the nature that closes its heart to others’ suffering. Torah presents us with one of the burning questions of our time, of all time: How does transformation of suffering occur? How do we humans affect the formless Creator of Genesis, the Flow of Life that is Eternally Present, so that there is sitting “where other folk sit in order to feel what they feel.“
Over and over we are presented with the choice and opportunity to evolve from Pharoah-nature to freedom, to liberation. Torah takes us on a journey out of places of closed hearts, closed lips and closed ears. This is a journey to hear and respond to each others’ cries.
And as I write this, I am deeply humbled because I know how easy it is for me to choose whose cries I hear, whose cries affect me. Do I even want to hear the cries of people carrying guns and signs for Trump, joining crowds waving Confederate and Nazi flags ? Do I want to shatter any remaining illusions that our country isn’t vulnerable to succumbing to it’s own historical sicknesses.
I am humbled to realize that I am afraid to hear their cries, afraid to take in their humanity, because I am afraid that merely opening myself to see their humanity makes me complicit in what they espouse. I fear I would be justifying or condoning values and actions that I believe to be dangerous. Thus I am unwilling to hear their cries as cries of suffering from the heart.
And I know that closing my heart to the suffering of those I view as “other” is the nature of Pharaoh. It is a renunciation of love. I have witnessed this over and over in myself and in others.
The book of Exodus, which we begin this week, tells the story of individual and collective spiritual journey. A journey to realization that nothing is separate from divine nature, which is love. It maps this journey as circuitous, longer and farther than the straightforward geographic journey. A journey that reflects all of life, painful and jubilant, confusing and clear, and still filled with glorious possibility and imagery that inspires liberation movements everywhere.
In this week’s parasha, Moses, a wandering shepherd, encounters God. At the burning bush, God instructs him, “take off your shoes, for the place where you are standing is holy.”
This is how I receive this message. That it is up to us. We must take off our shoes, our protections that block us from feeling what others feel. We must get close and proximate to ourselves and to others, as Bryan Stevenson says, so that the cries from the heart affect the flow of life.
Dear God, Great Spirit, dear friend, neighbor, partner, child…. How do we communicate with you so that you, the Flow of Life in me, in you, all around us, hear our cry, so that you are affected?
Slaving under Pharoah, Torah recounts, the Hebrews cried out and Eternally Present took notice and was affected. Their cries transmitted the deepest inner experience of suffering and the yearning for freedom. The cries arose out of the sparks of life that had not been extinguished or crushed by centuries of oppression, of not having needs heard or valued. It is a cry that says, stop using me as a source of wealth and power for others. A cry so powerful that , somehow, life force itself, formless and timeless, was affected.
We saw and heard this cry in Georgia this week, the cry of people huddled in lines, masked, subject to taunts and threats. The cry that endangers. The cry that comes from a vision of the mountaintop without fear. The cry that comes out of fear, and comes anyway. And dare I say, too, when I take off my shoes, and listen deeply, I hear these cries in the people marching in the streets of DC?
When the cries are heard the journey begins.
Can we, in our human form, hear all the cries? Is it a betrayal or a door to greater freedom?
And so, when I heard Rayshard’s story, I understood. He was on probation in a state that, despite its reforms, is ground zero for keeping people on probation for extended periods of time. 1 in 18 Georgians on probation or parole. Somebody said, “Well why did he run? Didn’t he know…” Well, sometimes you have to sit where other folk sit in order to feel what they feel.
—Senator-elect Raphael Warnock of Georgia, USA
In Israel today, Nonviolent Communication is called תקשורת מקרבת , Tikshoret Mekarevet, the Communication that brings us close. The Israelites’ cry, the cry that caused Eternally Present “to come down” was the communication that brings us close. It wasn’t a cry of blame or shame. It wasn’t the cry of a victim or a perpetrator. It was a cry from the heart of suffering. It was a revelation of the nature of the pain inside of me.
As Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of Nonviolent Communication, and Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh taught, when we hear the others’ expressions as their attempts to relieve their suffering, our hearts open and we connect to their humanity. Then we begin to know each other. We affect the very flow of life when we cry out and receive the cries of others.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
— Mary Oliver, Wild Geese