God speaks to Moses, confirming the covenant that was made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The pleas of the enslaved Israelites have been heard by the Eternal, and God instructs Moses to promise them redemption. God also commands Moses to speak to Pharaoh and demand that he liberate the people of Israel. Pharaoh refuses to release the slaves and God causes plagues on the Egyptians in order to change Pharaoh's mind. However, Pharaoh's heart was hardened.
At the beginning of our sedra, in the first aliyah, God hears the moaning of the Israelites (6:5) and makes the following promises: to free them from labors, deliver them from bondage, redeem them with an outstretched arm, take the Israelites to be God's people and ultimately to bring them to the Promised Land.
But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage. (6:9)
God's promises of redemption begin with the statement I have now heard their cries. By contrast, the Israelites would not to listen to Moses. The distinction between a God who hears and a people that refuses to listen is poignant. The verb sh'ma has multiple translations. When it is followed by the word et, it means hearing. When it is followed by el, as it is in this verse, it can be translated as acceptance. ( Be'er Yitzchak) An alternate translation for the Hebrew sh'ma in our verse is "heed" (Alter) or "hearken" (Fox) implying attending to what is said, hearing and then responding.
What prevented the Israelites from hearing or heeding God's message? Our translation explains that their spirits were crushed, but the Hebrew kotzer ruach yields various translations. The word ruach can mean spirit or breath. Rashi (and Robert Alter, following Rashi's commentary) renders shortness of breath. The Israelites suffered from hard labor, made harder due to Moses' actions. They could not muster the strength to pay attention to Moses. The need to breathe takes precedence over all others. "As a result of the prepotency of physiological needs, an individual will deprioritize all other desires and capacities." ("Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs," Wikipedia) The Israelites were physically winded from centuries of oppression, which precluded their attention to Moses' instructions.
Nahum Sarna (Commentary on Exodus) and Everett Fox translate kotzer ruach as shortness of spirit. The people had little spirit left in them. They had no more energy, no more fight. They had become conditioned to slavery, emotionally numb to the potential for freedom, psychologically incapable of accepting the challenge Moses placed in front of them. Like others before them and many others after them, the Israelites were more able to live with the idea of perpetual slavery than assume the risks associated with hoping for redemption. A commentary on Rashi corroborates this view, stating that the people did not hear because they did not believe Moses-they believed that no one could save them. (Devek Tov) In noting the Israelites' inability to hear Moses, we can better understand why, when communities are promised freedom, when organizations promise support, when tribunals promise judgment, the people cannot hear those promises. Their physical hearing may be fine but their psychological spirit has been so crushed that they cannot accept the words that have been spoken.
The people must ultimately learn to heed God. At Sinai, we see a distinct change. After hearing all of the commands of God through Moses, the people respond na'aseh v'nishma, We will do and we will heed. We continue to be bound by this promise. In Jewish tradition, listening with the proper intention is in itself a mitzvah as well as a midah, or virtue. For example, we are commanded to hear the call of the shofar. According the Jewish law, hearing a blessing said by an obligated person and responding "Amen" is the same as saying it oneself (there is no need to repeat it to fulfill the mitzvah).
The affirmation of our faith, the Sh'ma, requires that we first listen, or pay attention, directing our selves to the message at hand. Hearing is necessary for heeding, but not sufficient. Later in this parashah, Pharaoh hears the suffering of the Egyptians because of the plagues, but does not heed Moses' demand because of his hardened heart. Listening is more than a physical process. In order to truly listen in a way that we can respond, our hearts must be open and our spirits directed towards the message. Openness is a prerequisite for acceptance, a precondition for learning, and a necessary step in achieving repentance. There are times when each of us can be heard but are not heeded. Before we rush to judgment, we need to examine the spirit of the listener.
- Sometimes it is hard to hear because of an external distraction, sometimes because of an internal state of mind. When is it hard to hear because of the way the message is delivered? When is it hard to hear because of the content of the message? Can you come up with your own possibilities for why the Israelites could not hear what Moses was telling them?
- Think of some times in your life where someone has told you something you've long wanted to hear-maybe a doctor, a supervisor, a friend, or a child. Were you able to really hear the news? What made it so?
- When is prayer a kind of listening? Can listening be a kind of prayer? Try an experiment the next time you find yourself in the service during the silent meditation. Rather than compose a prayer in your own words, try listening. What insights does this bring you?
For further learning
How should one recite the Sh'ma?
- "The plain sense of 'Hear' implies saying Sh'ma loudly enough to be heard, and the kavvanah [intention] generates the requirement to say it ourselves, rather than to depend on 'hearing' it from others in the congregation, even the prayer leader. … Custom today actually demands shouting the first verse in a full voice." (Landes, in Hoffman, ed. My People's Prayer Book: The Sh'ma and Its Blessings, vol. 1, 96)
- Diana Harmon Asher objects to the emerging practice in Reform congregations of saying Sh'ma to oneself while covering the eyes in her article "The Shema Is Not a Private Prayer." (Reform Judaism Magazine, Spring 2002, 80)
- The Jewish pop star Doug Cotler sings, "Close your eyes and listen…. Listen to our God." ("Listen" on Listen)
What do you think?
Va-eira, Exodus 6:2-9:35
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 420-448; Revised Edition, pp. 379-400;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 331-354