Friday, December 20, 2013

Parashat Shemot

            The book of Exodus, like much of the Torah, has plenty of details that are difficult to comprehend. One literary example is the first mention of Moses’s father-in-law, Reuel. Why is he called Reuel here and later he is called Yitro or Jethro? The rabbis of the Midrash Rabbah reconciled this name change along a conceptual difficulty of their own. They were concerned that our great leader Moses should seek refuge with a Priest of Midian, a spiritual leader of non-Jews, an idolater. So the Midrash explains that Jethro had made teshuvah and turned from his ways and embraced the one true G-d. G-d accepts Yitro’s teshuvah, and he becomes Reuel, a “friend of G-d.”
            This Midrash answers one question about the text itself, but opens up the conceptual difficulties of the next paragraph even more. The king of Egypt died, and the Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out. G-d heard their moaning, and G-d remembered the covenant with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob. G-d looked upon the Israelites, and G-d took notice of them. Why was G-d able to so readily accept the teshuvah of the Priest of Midian, but took so long to redeem the people of Israel? What was G-d doing during all the years of slavery and infanticide before G-d heard the moaning of the Israelites and took notice of them?
            We know from the scene at Mt. Sinai when G-d tried to reveal G-dself to the whole people, that the people as a whole were unable to accept Divine revelation directly to them all. They begged Moses to go up to the mountain and bring the information back to them. G-d frightened them. In order to free the people from slavery and lead them to the Holy Land as a holy people, G-d needed a point person, a leader to go-between other humans and the Divine, Moses. Moses has a unique insider-outsider status that makes him the perfect candidate even from the Torah itself. Additionally, the rabbis took great pains to fill in the gaps of his life, starting from his conception, to illustrate that Moses was destined to be the one to lead the Jewish people toward salvation. Yet, even great destined Moses was not easily or immediately able to accept the voice of G-d or the Divine mission. When G-d called to Moses, G-d said, “I am the G-d of your father, the G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Isaac, and the G-d of Jacob.” In most places when G-d reveals G-dself to others in the Bible, G-d says “I am the G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” Why did G-d need to also say, “The G-d of your father” to Moses? The Midrash says it is because G-d spoke to Moses in his father’s voice, so that it would be a familiar and comfortable sound for him. Thus, G-d needed to quickly say, “I am the G-d of your father,” so that Moses would not think his father was actually talking to him from beyond the grave. I think a similar modern Midrash is crafted in the Prince of Egypt by having Val Kilmer voice both Moses and G-d in the scene. Either detail come to explain that, although the Torah doesn’t say what G-d’s voice sounded like, or in what manner G-d communicated these words to Moses (was it telepathic? Did the voice come from the burning bush? From the air?), the ancient rabbis and the makers of the Prince of Egypt are in agreement that G-d probably only speaks to us in voices we are able to recognize and listen to. Sometimes, that might mean G-d disguising the Divine voice to literally sound familiar, as it did for Moses. Sometimes, that might mean the Divine message coming through another human, as it did for all of the other Israelites who had to believe and follow Moses.
            When times are hard, sometimes the way forward seems impossible, and it’s easy to wonder where G-d is at those times. Maybe the answer to all your problems will be Divinely revealed and you will discover that you are Moses. More likely, you will discover that you are among the people of Israel, and that the strength of G-d is the strength of the community, of each other. Maybe G-d doesn’t whisper words of comfort directly into your ear, but G-d speaks to you through voices you are able to recognize and hear, the voices of your loved ones and members of your community who are here to support you. Remember that the word teshuvah actually does not mean repentance, but to return, and that if you return to your community, your friends, maybe even your faith, you may find that you too have become a “friend of G-d”, like Reuel, also known as Yitro. And even if it feels like G-d has not taken notice of your troubles, your loved ones have, and through them, G-d will lead you back to comfort and strength. May you always find yourself open to hearing the Divine message and redemption in the voices of those you love, in the voices of your community, and in your own voice. And may you find freedom. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

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