Finding Our Voice: a Dvar on Matterness.

Dec 19, 2013 by

By Rabbi Jeffrey Brown, delivered at the Connected Congregations Initiative workshop in New York City at UJA Federation of New York.


In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Shemot, we enter into the narrative of the Book of Exodus, and the story of the redemption of our ancestors from slavery in Egypt.

Thematically speaking, the Book of Exodus’s emphasis is on God’s role in that redemptive process. How extraordinary it is, the text wants us to say, that God miraculously brings the plagues, and that God split the sea, and that God revealed the Ten Commandments.

Not to take away from the gloriousness of all that…but I am a theological question-asker, and I puzzle over why God gets all of the credit. Sure: it’s the Exodus…But wasn’t it a little slow in coming? Our tradition suggests that the Israelites were enslaved for hundreds of years. What took God so long to get involved?

The turning point in the Torah text itself seems to come at Exodus 2:23: after the King of Egypt died…va’yai’ahnchu v’nei yisraeil…the Israelites were groaning from their state of bondage va’yeez’ahku – and they cried out…va’ta’al shavatam el-ha-Elohim…and their cry for help went up to God.

In the two verses that follow, the text indicates that God heard the cries, and prepared to respond to them.

In my past readings of this text, I have always focused on the transition in Heaven that seems to be going on here. Something seems to have changed within God. At first God willfully ignores the cries of the Israelites (according to Rashi). Now, God suddenly seems able to hear them. We might ask: why?

But there are other voices in our dialogue of the generations. Dr. Avivah Zornberg, writing in her 2001 commentary on Exodus called The Particulars of Rapture, shares two 19th century Hasidic commentaries that both focus on the remarkable transition that is unfolding…not within God, but within the Israelites. Sfat Emet, for examples, observes: “Before this [moment in the text], they were so deep in exile that they did not feel they were in exile. Now that they understood exile and groaned, a little redemption [that is: the process of redemption] began.”

Zornberg herself explains the insight. She writes: “The pain of not-having emerges in a cry: this is the moment of transformation when the people become redeemable. Then, God knows. What He knows, says Ramban [otherwise known as Nachmanides of 13th century Spain] is what He tells Moses He knows, at the Burning Bush: I know their pain. This is the core sentence, in which God explains His transformed awareness of the people’s suffering; because of this, God decides to save them.”

The dramatic turn that this reading speaks of calls to mind our own Allison Fine and her work on the notion of “matter-ness.”

God re-engages with the Israelites because, on some level, they matter again. Their suffering matters again.

Not that it ever stopped mattering, per se. But instead, our commentators suggest a pseudo-causal relationship between our ancestors’ ability to verbalize their concerns about their place in the world, and God’s ability to be responsive. In other words: when the Israelites were mute, God was deaf. But when they shouted out, God heard loud and clear.

As we seek to build more connected congregations, to what degree will we be supporting institutions that convey to our stakeholders that they matter? More to the point: what steps will we take to empower the members of our synagogues to find their voices, that they might join the conversation? And most importantly of all: when they do muster the courage to speak up, will we…like God…have the ability to hear them? To honor what they’ve said? And will we respond accordingly?

I’m not sure that I know the answers to all of those questions yet. But my anxiety about the future is stilled by the knowledge that we have been given the gift of this day, and this year, to explore these issues together.

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