What is the purpose of suffering?
Table for Five: Vaera
In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant.
– Ex. 6:5
Dr. Sheila Tuller Keiter, Judaic Studies Faculty, Shalhevet High School
How “now”? A better translation for the Hebrew “gam” is “also.” “I also have heard….” But why does God modify this statement with an “also”? In addition to what? This verse comes amidst God’s explanations for bringing the plagues upon Egypt and redeeming Israel. “And also I heard the groans of the children of Israel….” Israel’s suffering is also a reason that God will wage war against the gods of Egypt.
Does this mean Israel’s suffering is secondary and not the primary reason for God’s intervention? Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin (Netziv) suggests I am misreading the verse. The “also” refers not to the circumstances but to God Himself: “I too have heard their groans.” In speaking to Moshe, Hashem assures him that Moshe is not the only one concerned with Israel’s suffering. God too knows their pain.
Additionally, the “also” draws a parallel between Speaker and listener. Hashem is not just expressing awareness. He is voicing profound understanding. I am aware of Israel’s suffering, but I also understand your concern, and I share it. Moshe has been given a difficult task, and up until this point, his efforts have resulted solely in additional suffering for his people.
A little empathy holds tremendous power with minimal effort. With a single word, “also,” Hashem validates His messenger’s feelings. We all want to know we are not alone in suffering. But empathy is a two-way street. We can bestow as well as receive. How can you “too” be there for someone else?
Kylie Ora Lobell, Community Editor, Jewish Journal
The name of the parsha, “Va’era” means “and I appeared.” This is when Hashem appears to Moshe – and when He begins to fulfill his covenant to bring the Jews to the land of Israel He promised to the Patriarchs. While the Jews were suffering in Egypt for a long time, it is when they cry from the depths of their hearts to be rescued and forge a connection with Him that he puts the plan into motion. It is when Moshe is ready to lead them that it all lines up. If you believe in Hashem, you know that He has a plan, and everything is for the good –even if we don’t understand what is good. How can slavery and suffering be good? Sometimes we know. In this case, spiritual refinement occurred in Egypt, and we were ready to be given the Torah and follow its laws after that. Sometimes, we do not know why bad things happen. The Torah shows us, however, that Hashem is in control and we must trust in Him. Now, the Jewish people are once again in a very difficult place, but we must not lose faith. Hashem redeemed the Israelites in Egypt, and He will redeem us too. He will appear. We may not know why we are suffering – that’s not our job. But it is our job to trust in Hashem. As for me, I trust in Him now more than ever.
Lori Shapiro, Rabbi-Artistic Director/ Open Temple
What emergent theologies gestate in a post-10/7 world? If AJ Heschel famously states “Religion is an answer to man’s ultimate questions” then what Torah wisdom engenders where God is through these times?
Heschel writes: “…the idea of pathos, which I consider to be the central idea in prophetic theology, contains the doctrine of the shekinah . . . Without an understanding of the idea of shekinah we fail completely to understand … the theme of God in search of man which I consider to be the summary of Jewish theology.”
A feminine attribute of the Godhead, the “idea of Shekhina” provides a God that transcends our exile, as the rabbis taught, “Shekhina dwells whenever 10 gather for prayer,” and “When a person studies Torah, the Shekhina is among them.” She also bears an image of creation – a womb encircling us and whose drama precedes consciousness.
Torah reclaims God’s presence at our time of exile, as we are beckoned, literally, into the mind (or womb) of God’s inner stream of consciousness. Read as first person, each of us can recognize God’s voice within since that Black Sabbath: through the tears and pains of our brethren, through our collective suffering, through a call to remember an ancient and pragmatic doctrine that sustains us through time; a statement of faith transcending any geographic coordinates. Simply, the covenant of our Peoplehood: We pray. We study. We dwell amongst one another. We cry together. We struggle. We remember. We are reborn.
We are Israel.
Rabbi Avraham Greenstein, AJRCA Professor of Hebrew
Rashi on this verse clarifies that the covenant being referred to here is the Abrahamic covenant, the “Covenant of the Pieces.” As part of this covenant, God promises Abraham that although his descendants will be enslaved for four hundred years, upon the end of that period they will return with great wealth to the Land of Canaan, to inherit it.
The fact of this two-part promise helps explain how it is that God “remembered” His covenant. It is not the case that the covenant was forgotten, merely that the time had come to enact the second stage of the covenant, the redemption that follows the subjugation. As long as the Children of Israel were being oppressed by the Egyptians, it felt as if God had forgotten them. The enslavement itself did not feel like the fulfillment of a divine promise. It felt like misfortune, as if the Children of Israel were the common-place victims of circumstance. After all, Egypt had many vassals and many slaves. The Children of Israel were not exceptional in being subjugated. It was only when the redemption began that it became clear that God had never forgotten His children, that the servitude in Egypt was part of a guided process towards redemption. God was with them the entire time.
This verse comes to remind us in times of confusion, difficulty, sadness, and hardship that we are not alone, and that our struggle is purposeful. We are merely undergoing the difficult labor that precedes a glorious rebirth.
Gavriel Aryeh Sanders, Thrive Study Abroad, Jerusalem / The Gavriel Sanders Show
Riding The Sine Wave
Most of us know and take comfort from the familiar phrase “ma’asei avot siman la’banim” – the deeds of our forefathers are a sign for the children. Their forerunner experiences cascade down through the ages to provide us principles and examples of how to manage the exigencies of Jewish life in an unfriendly world.
A companion phrase, also well-known, is the concept of a “yeridah l’tzorich aliyah” – a descent for the purpose of ascent. When we put the two phrases together, we create the optics of our ancestors navigating life’s downs to achieve Hashem’s ups.
Chassidic thought infers that we all as neshamot descended earthward to elevate this realm and our physical, moral, and intellectual selves along with it. All this in anticipation of returning to an even higher realm than the one from which we came.
With that “preramble” out of the way, I suggest we can view the events of Sefer Shemot as a macro for stabilizing our place in time and space. The exodus story is infused with reasons for hope in our own puzzling, angst-riddled moments in history (especially during the current Gaza War). The G-d Who led Bnei Yisrael down is the G-d Who will lead them up. He’ll override the natural order to demonstrate His allegiance to the covenant made with the Fathers, for the benefit of their children, even though they’d fallen so far. As for them then – so for us now. Shabbat shalom from Yerushalayim with brachot b’shefa’.
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