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  • Writer's pictureJosh Scharff

Parashat Vaera - Unable to Hear

In the second parsha of Exodus, Parshat Vaera, God will send Moses and Aaron to Pharaoh and will begin to unleash wonders, plagues, on Egypt that will eventually lead to the release of the Jewish people from slavery. But even before Moses comes before Pharaoh, one of the most powerful men in the world, he has to face an even more intimate challenge. First, he must go in front of his people, the Israelites, and tell him that he has been sent by God to free them, to lead them from slavery into freedom. 

God prepares Moses, guides him in what to say to his people. Moses learns to invoke the name of the ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Moses reminds the Israelites about the covenant, forged generations before and its central promise that one day, and that day will be soon, that the Israelites will be free and will be guided to the land God promised their ancestors. 

This is all well and good, Moses knows how to invoke the right words and mention the correct people. But consider for a moment what the Israelites see when they look upon Moses. They do not see someone who has suffered with them, they do not see someone who feels the years of hard work and terrible conditions on his body and soul. Rather, they see a man who grew up as a Prince of Egypt, related to the regime that has caused them such misery. 

The Torah reflects this where it is written “But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses mi-kotzer ruach u’meavodah kasha - their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.” (Exodus 6:9) The Israelites cannot hear Moses, they cannot even imagine that the incredible news that the day of their redemption is nearing could possibly be true. There is something holding them back, blocking their ability to internalize that change is coming. 

Most of the traditional commentaries take the words mi-kotzer ruach u’meavodah kasha to mean that because of all of their suffering, the Israelites had lost faith in God. On the surface this makes sense. Who among us has not had their conceptions and beliefs tested when facing a crisis? These past months are an all too real example. I have heard from friends and colleagues about the crisis of faith that days of darkness have caused them. 

But, to me, reading these verses as a lack of faith in God as the reason the Israelites cannot hear Moses is, well, surface level. The Ramban, Moses ben Nahman, who lived and worked in 13th century Spain, also understood these verses differently. He wrote:

It was not because they did not believe in G-d and in His prophet [that they hearkened not]. Rather, they paid no attention to his words because of impatience of spirit, as a person whose soul is grieved on account of his misery and who does not want to live another moment in his suffering [cannot hear anything].” 

What the Ramban is suggesting is that it is not a failure of faith or a lack of trust in God that closes Israel off to Moses and his message of hope. Rather, it is because of the weight they felt on their souls that they are unable to hear anything beyond the immediate reality of their daily, difficult existence. 

In other words, the Ramban reminds us to give people grace, to give them compassion. Many times we are simply not ready to hear the message and it has nothing to do with the quality of the words or their messenger. We are simply not able to hear them because our souls are not in the right place. 

Particularly in these days, days in which we Jews feel raw, still feel the threat on our person and on our souls, it is even more so difficult to hear and to be heard. The wisdom of the Ramban is that, particularly in times of the greatest spiritual calamity, we must demand even more of ourselves. We must strive to find depths of kindness and compassion that in normal times we would not seek. While some might see this as silly, I would ask them - when was the last time someone honored you with a random act of kindness? Remember how that felt? Now imagine if we could only multiply that on an exponential scale… there is no telling how far that kindness can go. 

I will wrap up this week by sharing a quote from the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, alav ha’shalom, who summed up his feelings about kindness with these words: “When I was young, I used to admire intelligent people; as I grow older, I admire kind people.” 

May these dark days not cause us to forget the power of small acts of kindness and compassion and may we be blessed with the patience to spread even more love in a dark world. 

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