Shalom Orzach

Hear It Is

You would be forgiven were you to claim that one of the key subjects of this week’s portion of Va’era is the plagues God meted out to the Egyptians. There are after all seven of the ten, gruesomely recorded. But if you listen a little harder you will discover that it is about hearing! 

The dramatic opening of Va’era describes how God 6:5 “ heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians were holding them in bondage, and (I have) remembered His covenant.” He therefore instructs Moses to speak to the children of Israel to convey this, and that redemption is on the way. Moses attempts to relay the message but 6:9 “…they would not listen to, or could not hear Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.” God then charges him to speak with Pharaoh to order him to let the Jews go. Moses’s response in astounding if not puzzling 6:13;

וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר מֹשֶׁ֔ה לִפְנֵ֥י יְהֹוָ֖ה לֵאמֹ֑ר הֵ֤ן בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לֹֽא־שָׁמְע֣וּ אֵלַ֔י וְאֵיךְ֙ יִשְׁמָעֵ֣נִי פַרְעֹ֔ה וַאֲנִ֖י עֲרַ֥ל שְׂפָתָֽיִם׃

But Moses appealed to the LORD, saying, “The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of impeded speech!”

Curiously Rashi, in his commentary on this verse argues that this is a Kal V’chomer, – A fortiori. We only recently established that the Jews could not hear Moses due to their crushed spirits, – people oppressed and enslaved cannot hear the call of freedom. Pharoah on the other hand is very free to listen, the reasoning for his impaired hearing is ego and brute power. It is not about the messenger rather about the message, and the analogy is what might be dubbed as comparing apples to oranges. 

So how are we to understand this bewildering argument by Moses? Perhaps he too was not quite hearing the call. He appears to be fixated more on his ability to carry out the role and less on the task at hand. As we suggested last week, these on-going objections relate more to the fact that Moses sincerely believed that it was God and only God who must carry out the task, where the intermediary is superfluous.

Returning to the hearing, pun intended, the theme continues time and time again, following plague and warnings Pharoah does not listen nor hear. It may not be so much the hard of heart rather the hard of hearing.

All of the protagonists of the story, God, the Children of Israel, Pharaoh and perhaps Moses too have moments where hearing or lack of it plays a central role. From the very outset of our journey from Egypt to Sinai, there is a powerful and fundamental lesson being illuminated. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l taught “Judaism is a religion of sound, not sight; of hearing rather than seeing; of the word as against the image…The G-d of Israel, G-d at the heart of reality, cannot be seen. G-d is to be found not by looking but by listening. He lives in words…” (Covenant and Conversation Re’eh 5768)

The opening verse and the name of the portion Va’era – And I appeared, paradoxically accentuates this profound concept. God “appeared” to the patriarchs through words, through the promises He made. He “appears”, as the verse conveys, through or as El Shadai, not through the name Adonai. There is a Rabbinic tradition that elucidates the meaning as   שדי” הוא שֶׁ-דַּי, כלומר: אֲשֶׁר דַּי” A God that is sufficient almost invoking not seeking to be seen, allegedly understating God’s own magnitude. The Torah was relayed orally, we received the spoken not the written word. This ethos of Sinai is imparted at the very inception of the children becoming the People of Israel, through the act of Hear O’ Israel.

Shabbat shalom

About the Author
Shalom is a senior educator and consultant for The iCenter and serves as faculty for the Foundation for Jewish Camp . Prior, he served as the AVI CHAI Project Director and Director of Education in the Shlichut and Israel Fellows unit for the Jewish Agency. He has served as a consultant for the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Jewish Peoplehood Committee. Shalom was also a scholar on the prestigious Jerusalem Fellows Program, after which he served as the Executive Director of Jewish Renewal for United Jewish Israel Appeal (UJIA). Shalom is an acclaimed public speaker on contemporary Israel who brings extensive knowledge, humor and passion. He feels privileged to live in Jerusalem and loves sharing stories about life in the Land of so much Promise.
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