Listen, learn, act

Rabbi James M. Bennett serves Congregation Shaare Emeth. 

By Rabbi James M. Bennett

Shemot, one of the most well-known and beloved passages of Torah, is this week’s Torah portion. Shemot begins the saga of our people that has become a foundational text for generations of people of faith. 

These words carry a universal message about freedom and responsibility. The opening chapters of this drama teach many compelling lessons. Some of the most poignant for me this week, as I read the Torah as a Jew, an American and a citizen of the world, include:

“These are the names …” (Exodus 1:1). The Torah recounts, tribe by tribe, the names of all of the people of Israel, as if to remind us of the importance of pluralism. After 400 years in the melting pot of Egypt, our people is still richly diverse, and each and every member of the community matters. 

“A new king arose who did not know Joseph …” (Exodus 1:8). And he said, “ ‘Behold, the people of the children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us.’ ” (Exodus 1:9). As we well know, Pharaoh’s xenophobic and myopic fear of the Other leads in this story to his ultimate demise. 

“And Pharaoh’s daughter had compassion on (Moses) …” (Exodus 2:6). Seeing the child floating on the river, the daughter of Pharaoh does the right thing without regard for the fears expressed by her father. Compassion places its unceasing demands upon us all. The only question is whether we will have the courage to act.

Advertisement: The Grande at Chesterfield

“And God saw the children of Israel, and God took notice of them …” (Exodus 2:25). Human action cannot ultimately escape the awareness of the Divine. What we do matters more than the illusion of self-importance, and there is ultimate justice, tempered by compassion, in time and history. 

“And Moses said: ‘I will turn aside now and see this great sight, why the bush is not consumed.’ ” (Exodus 3:3). One of the demands of leadership is the ability to listen, to pay attention to others and to God. Moses begins to become a leader not from his impetuous act of self-imposed morality upon the Egyptian taskmaster, but only when he puts aside his ego and listens and pays attention to what God and the Universe are saying to him. We are ultimately judged by our ability to transcend our selfish, parochial concerns and notice the timeless demands of creation upon us all.

And Moses answered and said: “But, behold, they will not believe me, nor listen to my voice …” (Exodus 4:1). Moses’ humility remains his greatest virtue. He understands, almost from the start, that it is not about him, but that there is a greater power and greater values than his own voice and his own ideas that must prevail for justice and compassion to reign.

Torah speaks for itself. We are reminded to maintain hope and optimism even at the most challenging moments. Our task, always, is to listen, to learn and to act.