There is a difference between a friendly hospital visit and one offered with pastoral care. With the former, we bring cheer to the patient and surround them with good wishes. We are upbeat and positive. We bring them hope and dare not talk about what could go wrong with their illness or injury. Throughout my time as a rabbi, I’ve been in situations where I’ve been asked not to talk about someone’s prognosis, lest it bring them down and I become Debbie Downer. (Spoiler alert: They already know and already are down.)
On the other hand, a pastoral visit is one where we recognize that someone is in pain. Our job is to validate that pain. While we might pray and hope for a better tomorrow, we recognize, too, that this might not always be possible. Our care and hope for others is grounded in reality.
So in this week’s Torah portion, Vaera, how in the world do God and Moses respond to the Israelites who are experiencing cruel bondage as slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt? Could they perhaps be paying the Israelites one of these “friendly visits”?
As God is prepping Moses to appeal to Pharaoh to let the Israelites go, it’s first important to God that the Israelites get a little pep talk. God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites that everything in the future will turn out as planned. God will redeem them. They eventually will get to the Promised Land. In other words: “Don’t worry, kids, I’ve got this one.”
But how did the Israelites respond to this divine pep talk?
The Torah says: “But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage” (Exodus 6:9).
In essence, the Israelites were not having it. They just did not listen.
We often point fingers at the Israelites. We might say that they are being just as stubborn as Pharaoh, in that they are not listening to Moses. By extension, we might say that they are ignoring God’s words.
However, we learn from some commentators (e.g., Ramban and Ibn Ezra) that it’s not that the Israelites didn’t believe that God would pull through. It’s that they wouldn’t listen to Moses when he told them that’s what would happen.
In other words, there is a difference between listening and believing.
The Israelites believed that God eventually would help them, that God would lead them out of Egypt and into the Promised Land someday. They had hope. They knew that at some point they would experience better days. They trusted that eventually — even if not right away — all would be okay. They believed the promise that God gave to their ancestors would come true — that their descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky.
But they just didn’t want to hear it. They just didn’t want to listen. And to be honest, I can understand why.
We often read this story — where Moses tries to convince the Israelites of their future redemption — and we side with Moses. We are puzzled as to why the Israelites don’t listen to him. After all, he’s on their team. After all, he has a direct connection with God. After all, wouldn’t they want all the help they could get? We even might describe the Israelites — who shun Moses (of all people!) — as stubborn, just like Pharaoh.
But perhaps what they were doing is really trying to protect themselves. Perhaps, as much as they believed Moses’ words, they just didn’t want to hear them. Perhaps, instead of being “stubborn,” what they were really doing was practicing self-care.
I have to imagine that if I were going through what the Israelites were experiencing, I might react to Moses in the same way. If I were a slave experiencing cruel bondage in Egypt, I might not want Positive Pollyanna coming along and prophesizing about better times in the future. What I would want, however, is someone who could share and empathize about my experience right now.
Could it be that what the Israelites needed was their leader and God just to recognize where they were physically, emotionally, and spiritually?
When I’ve visited with people who sit with their dying loved one, the last thing they want to hear from me is “everything will be okay” or “have faith in God” — even if ultimately they believe that — or even if they know that the act of dying is an act of peace and release. To insert ourselves and say something like that would be to ignore what they are going through, even sometimes to be lacking in emotional presence.
Hope must be balanced with reality.
It’s one thing to be positive, to have hope, to know that even if it will be a long time from now, redemption will be achieved. It’s another thing to recognize that a naïve hope, a far-fetched hope, also can do more harm than good.
I wonder how the Israelites’ journey could have been different if Moses and God just recognized where their people were.
When we respond to others and offer them support, may we, too, recognize where others are. May we give them hope and pray for the best outcomes, but may those prayers and hopes also be grounded in the reality of their experience.