Rabbi Yair Robinson
Congregation Beth Emeth
Parashat Va’era: When Work Fails Us
When I originally planned my sermon topics, this week’s was supposed to be titled “when words fail us”, a nice opportunity to talk about Moses’ language challenges as recounted in Parashat Va’era. But a misread note turned it into “When Work Fails Us”. Can’t say that I was thrilled by that, but the more I reflected on that idea, the more it seemed to actually make sense.
Think about it this way: Moses is called to his task by God, and reluctantly, he takes it up. He goes with Aaron his brother, talks to Israel, and they’re initially excited. Finally, someone is here to rescue us! But when Moses goes to Pharaoh, well, he’s Pharaoh. We know how the story turns out. And Israel, Moses complains, won’t listen any further; they close their hearts off, so oppressed by their bondage.
Often people read this text as either a failure of hope on the part of Israel, or a failure of effort on the part of Moses. Either they really aren’t listening, or he really is Mr. Mumbles. But I think in reading that way, as if Redemption was inevitable, as if the path to Sinai is perfectly linear, misses some great insight into how our lives really are.
Again and again we’re told in life, if we just work a little harder, if we just put more of ourselves or more effort into what we’re doing, if we just commit ourselves more fully to our chosen tasks, then everything will open up to us. And that’s how we live our lives. Look at the acres of shelving that house books on business, or parenthood, or education, or success. All of them tell the same story. But it’s simply not true. It’s not always a matter of working harder. It’s not enough to simply do the work, or devote ourselves to the effort. Someday someone will do the job better, or differently, or with more or less enthusiasm. It’s not about the work; it’s about the relationship, the connection. Why does Israel not listen? Moses doesn’t have the relationship with the Israelites yet; nor, frankly, does God. Both of them have to prove themselves to Israel, to assure them that yes, we will go out, we will go up. As Rabbi Noah Farkas teaches: connection comes before commitment. In fact, the rabbis ask the question, why doesn’t the Torah begin with the 10 commandments? Why have Genesis and the beginning of Exodus at all? Because, the rabbis say, Israel needed—and WE needed, an introduction. Who is God to impose mitzvoth on Israel, on us? No, we need the relationship—this is the one who spoke and the world came to be, the one who made a covenant with our forebears, the one who redeemed us with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Only then, by establishing that fact, could Israel, or we, be able to accept Torah.
More than that, they have to believe it themselves. I’m sure God had no doubt, as if that could be said, but Moses? He had to believe in his task, in Israel’s worthiness, and in himself. At this point, he doesn’t believe any of it. He needs to feel it deep within his neshamah that in fact, Israel, who now doesn’t hear, will reply “na’aseh v’nishmah” –we will do and we will hear, when they get to Sinai. He has to believe that he, the stutterer, will be able to sing mi chamocha ba’elim Adonai at the shores of the sea. That strength only comes from building the relationships; between Israel and Moses, God and Israel, Moses and God, and Moses and his true self, the Prophetic vision of himself that he’s been avoiding. Connection comes before commitment: Moses and Israel need that connection with who they could be before they can commit to that vision.
Is it any different with us? We can bust our tucheses, we can focus more, meditate, commit, make pledges and promises, we can make new year’s resolutions, and in the end, they don’t matter. Not because we’re liars and shirkers, not because we want to fail. Because we need to have the relationship first, we need the connection: with who we are now, with each other, and with who we want to be. AND, I would argue, with that sense of the sacred that calls us to live as fully, as truly, and meaningfully as we can.
The parasha ends this week with Pharaoh’s heart hardened and Israel still in Egypt. The work has been begun, but it’s not complete. So it is with us. The work is begun, the work is before us, the work of repairing the world, of building community, of education, of creating meaning, of healing those around us, but it’ll remain incomplete until we build the relationships within and without. Then we can say, we will do, because we can hear each other—but that’s for another week. Amen.