Movement work is hard. Paths to possible victories pass through certain defeats. It is impossible to do the work of justice and liberation without bouts of debilitating self-doubt and glimpses over the precipice of despair, when we think we’re not helping, but only making things worse. How can we press on in the work? Our parasha opens on just that note. Moshe, who didn’t feel worthy and who dreaded being sent to Egypt to work for the Israelites’ liberation in the first place (Sh’mot/Exodus 3:11 and following), overcame his fears, did what he was asked, but apparently, it failed spectacularly. He confronted Phara‘oh and conveyed Hashem’s demand that he release the Hebrews (Sh’mot 5:2), but not only did Phara‘oh dismiss Moshe and God — “Who is YHWH, that I should listen to his voice?!” (5:2), but used the freedom movement as a pretext to intensify their labor oppression with ever-more-draconian regulations (5:5-9), deriding the Israelites as “lazy”(5:17) and Moshe as a rabble-rouser (5:4-5). The Israelites, initially excited by Moshe and Aharon’s arrival and rhetoric, turn on them: “May YHWH see you and judge, for you have made our odor stink in the eyes of Phara‘oh and the eyes of his servants, putting a sword in their hands to kill us!” (5:21). Moshe lashes out at God, and God says, ‘Just watch’ (6:1). This is what we’ve been sitting with all week, a vague, but strong promise of liberation, against the lived experience of a failed uprising, leading to greater brutality.
Into the midst of Israelite agony, God calls out to Moshe, opening our parasha by revealing in greater detail the brighter future in store for the Israelites:
“I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. Say, therefore, to the Israelite people, ‘I am YHWH. I will BRING you out from the labors of the Egyptians and I will DELIVER you from their bondage. I will REDEEM you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary judgments. And I will TAKE you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, YHWH, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land which I swore to Avraham, Yitzhak, and Ya‘akov, and I will give it to you for a possession—I, YHWH’” (Sh’mot 6:5-8).
In the experience of despair, it is tempting to hear this promise as just a more verbose repetition of the same promise which Moshe and the people have come to distrust, God shouting instead of speaking to their actual anguish. That’s what actually happened: “So Moshe spoke accordingly to the Israelites, but they could not hear Moshe, out of shortness of breath and hard labor” (Sh’mot 6:9). Moshe, consequently, balks at continuing the movement, telling God, “Look, the Israelites didn’t hear me, so how would Phara‘oh hear me, and I have foreskinned lips” (6:12): I clearly can’t speak well or we wouldn’t be in this predicament. Dr. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, following the Hasidic master known as the S’fas Emes, homes in on the logic of Moshe’s despair: “because they would not listen, therefore I am of foreskinned lips” (The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus, 2001, pp. 83-84). The experience of failure and oppression blocks our words.
However, a more careful ear can detect a crucial, if elusive, lesson in God’s apparently redundant speech. God is not giving us synonyms for the end result of freedom, but outlining the process, the stages toward that freedom. A well-known midrash (Talmud Yerushalmi Pesahim 10:1 and elsewhere) teaches that the four key verbs which I bolded represent four distinct redemptions. The Torah Temimah (Rav Baruch HaLevi Epstein, 1860-1941) explains: “Vehotzeiti (I will bring out)”—that God lightened our work load; “Vehitzalti (I will deliver)”—that we no longer worked at all; “VeGa’alti (I will redeem)”—that we completely ceased to be Phara‘oh’s slaves; “VeLakahti (I will take you)”—that we were brought into a special, firm relationship with God. Think about what those must have looked and felt like in material terms: Egypt thrown into socio-economic and political turmoil from the first few plagues, so Phara‘oh eases the labor conditions to try to quell the rebellion. Or perhaps he started to lose control of the people and overseers stopped caring or started resigning, easing the burden. Eventually, Egypt is in total free-fall and slavery is defunct, though borders are still enforced. Eventually Egypt had no control over our ancestors and we booked it, giving us the space to create and nurture culture, in a deep, covenantal relationship.
Liberation isn’t magic; it’s a process, a succession of measurable victories escalating to a sea change. The midrash adds that these four verbs, four redemptions, are the source for why we are obligated to drink four cups of wine at the Pesach seder. Liberation demands celebration, not just for the happy ending, but for each victory along the way. Similarly, the Pesach Haggadah includes the Dayeinu poem, which walks us through 14 distinct redemptions leading up to and following the exodus, each one of which would alone be sufficient cause (“Dayeinu”) for us to offer praise and celebration by singing the freedom songs of Hallel. The full list affirms that our celebration must always point forward, that each small victory is part of a bigger picture. No one victory is existentially “enough”, but each is sufficient cause to celebrate.
When we break down liberation from a flat, totalizing vision into a long series of concrete, achievable steps, we restore our voices. How do we restore our voices? By using our voices. Singing Hallel after a partial victory to energize us getting back to work the next day, rather than denying the partial victory, rejecting any cause for song because there’s so much more to do. Song, speech, and even groaning and crying train us to hear ourselves and each other of people who must be heard. A major recurring theme of these Torah portions is Phara‘oh refusing to hear or listen. Mirroring that is the recurring theme of God commanding Moshe and Aharon to speak. The premise of God’s speech, we now understand as a strategy plan is that “I have heard the moaning of the Israelites” (6:5). The heart of oppression is silencing the voices of the oppressed, erasing them for their elimination, exploitation, or scapegoating, but always suppressing their subjectivity, their voice. As Isabel Wilkerson puts it, “The ancient code for the subordinate caste calls upon them to see the world not with their own eyes but as the dominant caste sees it” (Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, 2020, p. 283), making the oppressed feel inarticulate, that they have a speech impediment, that their lips are blocked by foreskin.
This Shabbat let us resolve to notice, accept, and celebrate micro-victories toward human and planetary liberation where we achieve them and to connect them with each other into a strategic progression, a great, epic arc of redemption from any and all Phara‘ohs and toward covenental trust and just power, with the One Who Hears the Cries of the Oppressed. Let’s keep talking, singing, and groaning, and hearing and amplifying the voices of the oppressed.