Parshat Bo: Famine of Hearing

I write this from the Spiritual Care office of a large hospital in Atlanta, where the ICU has been expanded, and then expanded again, to accommodate the frighteningly high number of patients who are critically ill with the novel coronavirus. Whereas six months ago, we hardly knew anyone who was infected and talked about the virus in hushed voices, now we hardly know anyone who hasn’t been affected by the illness in a personal way.  It seems pointless to share statistics when fielding daily calls from family members making funeral arrangements and picking up personal belongings of their beloveds who are not coming home.  It feels too tender to celebrate the slow roll-out of a protective vaccine when the energy at the hospital hums with grief, isolation, and exhaustion.

The reality of our present moment has convergent themes with our sacred text.  We, as a country, have had the dreadful experience of being led by a president who is so preoccupied with power and self-interest that he is not capable of meeting a national crisis with any empathy. As we close out the final days of his residence at the White House, I cringe at the stark caricature of a man who consistently lacks compassion and who is firmly bent toward chaos.  As our cities brace for the president’s call to violence and his refusal to step away from the superficial light of power, our national reality truly feels constricted and stretched taut.

Are we even aware of how distressing our situation is?  Are we sufficiently open to take in the gravity of the harm that division and lies have caused to our society?  Do we have the capacity to feel the trauma of the death and illness all around us?  Can we expose our hearts to the injustice inflicted on people of color? As I look for ways to see the good in everything, what comes to mind is that this time of heartbreak has aroused a sense of urgency and a rebellious courage in people who want to build a different future for our children. Our spirit has not been broken, yet; so long as we are still able to envision and believe in a different possibility.

Parshat Bo describes the final days of Pharaoh’s power over the Israelites. He is an archetype of a narcissistic tyrant blinded by egocentricity and lack of care about the suffering of others. The entire Egyptian nation is punished collectively and severely for the stubbornness and cruelty of their leader. Much has been written about the connection between Pharaoh’s calloused heart and his inability to listen, which brings about death and the unraveling of creation itself. The text highlights the heart-ear connection as a cautionary tale: you better soften your heart if you want to hear the essential vibrations of life. In contrast to Pharaoh’s deafness, YHVH “hears the moaning” of the Israelites in bondage and leads them toward expansiveness and life.  Ultimately, the “broken spirited” Israelites walk out of the constricting reality of Mitzrayim, as YHVH creates extraordinary circumstances and doles out punishments to their tormentors.

The last three of the ten “signs and portents” (otot u-moftim) that befall Egypt convey an intensification of darkness.  First, a swarm of locusts so ubiquitous that the earth becomes hidden from view. (Ex. 10:5) These pests devour vegetation, including trees, a symbol of such utter destruction that even protective shade is consumed. Next, Pharaoh—the sun god incarnate—and his people are fully immersed in blackness, with three days of darkness so tangible that “it can be touched.” (Ex. 10:22) And finally, the definitive night of human death itself that permeates every Egyptian family, “from the first-born of Pharaoh who sits on the throne to the firstborn of the slave-girl who sits at the millstone.” (Ex. 11:5-6).

When reading this text, I feel the urge to incant “Banu Choshech L’garesh,” an Israeli folk song that children sing on Hannukah:

Art by Jessica Tamar Deutsch
We came to drive away the darkness,
in our hands is light and fire.

Everyone's a small light,
and all of us are an ever-flowing light.

Drive away darkness into blackness!
Drive it in exchange for light!

When hearing the voices of children singing these words, one cannot help but feel inspired and hopeful.  We have to keep being the lamplighters within ourselves for the benefit of all beings.  When we come together our light cannot be extinguished.

From the pit of darkness, out of the rubble of an archaic order, the Israelites escape into the open wilderness of possibility. It is yet to be determined what kind of nation they will become. Their story keeps unfolding, even as our generation lives out our spiritual purpose and potential. The question remains, what kind of nation will we become as we recover from the pandemic? Can we heal communal schism and instability?  Are we able to feel our connection to the Presence of YHVH, to see it in one another and everyday acts of kindness, to reach for it through our efforts of building a more compassionate world?

The Zohar describes disconnection from the divine as a state in which “famine prevails when compassion withdraws from justice.” (1:81b) Daniel Matt points out a verse from Amos 8:11 that describes famine not as “hunger for bread or thirst for water,” but a famine for “hearing the word of YHVH.

May we be like “companions who sit in the garden, listening for Your voice.” (Song of Songs 8:13) May we soften our hearts enough to hear the vibrations of life-giving and life-sustaining expressions of YHVH, as subtle and mysterious as they may sound in our time. May we find a way forward that brings compassion and justice together so that “when compassion and truth meet, justice and peace kiss.” (Psalm 85:11)

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