Becoming ‘woke’ to oppression, then and now

Benjamin Chaidell is the Rabbi Bernard Lipnick Rabbinic Intern at Congregation B’nai Amoona and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.


“Stay woke!” 

The word “woke” has increasingly come to mean not only the past tense of “awake” but also to be socially aware, especially as related to issues of racial and social justice, according to Merriam-Webster. 

The term originated as a slang term in African–American Vernacular English (AAVE). With recent waves of social activism in the black community and in America overall, it became a rallying cry for “those who were self-aware, questioning the dominant paradigm and striving for something better,” according to Merriam-Webster.

In our Torah portion for this week, Vaera, the Israelite people become, as it were, “woke” to their oppression in Egypt. 

Yet it took nothing short of a divine miracle for them to question the state they found themselves in.

According to one Hasidic commentator, Rabbi Simchah Bunem of Pryzsucha, the burdens of Egypt, or in Hebrew, the sivlot Mitzrayim, became the “new normal” for the Israelites. As Rabbis Kerry Olitzky and Lawrence Kushner translate, “though the slavery was hard and crushing, nevertheless they became accustomed to the bitterness and bore the burden and the distress patiently.” 

Here Rabbi Bunem notes the eerie similarity between the word “sivlot” or “burdens” and “savlanut” or “patience.” The Israelites had patiently accepted their horrific lot.

Rabbi Bunem imagines God noticed and said: “Since already they are not healthy nor do they sense the bitterness of their lot, the danger would be great to detain the redemption any longer.”  

God notices that the people are no longer healthy, morally as well as physically. They have become numb to their suffering and the suffering of others. They are no longer aware of how abusive and how wrong slavery is. They have lost any sense of what is right and wrong, what is good and moral in the world. If they are not redeemed now, they may well become unredeemable. 

It is at this point that God decides to intervene. God saves the people when they no longer can save themselves, when they no longer possess the desire to bring themselves out of slavery. 

How does God do that? By waking them to their oppression and to the injustice of their situation. By making them “woke.”

God tells Moses to tell the Israelites, “I the LORD will bring you out from the sivlot [burdens] of Egypt” (Exodus 6:6). I the LORD will redeem you from the sivlot, the physical burden, and from the savlanut, the psychological burden of accepting your lot. I will wake you up to the oppression that surrounds you, so that you can be redeemed.

Too often, we too become inured to the injustices that surround us on a daily basis and that, perhaps, we too face. 

Yet 2017 woke us to the suffering so many face today, from the women (and men) of the #MeToo movement to the cries of refugees across the globe. 

Daily injustices don’t always make the headlines: the elderly left alone with no one to visit; the homeless on our freezing streets; children who are bullied and abused with no one to love them.

It is easy to dismiss our pain, and their pain, as simply part of life. To tell ourselves, and to tell others, to bear the burdens (sivlot) with patience (savlanut). 

But our Torah portion demands that we take a different path: that we wake ourselves to the oppression and the injustice that surrounds us and that we imitate God in waking others so that we all may be freed from slavery to freedom.

May that be God’s will, and our own.

Shabbat Shalom.