By Rabbi Nathan Martin
In the beginning of this week’s parsha, Va-era, God speaks to Moses promising to act on Israel’s cries of suffering and bring deliverance.
As the text reads, “I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites … and I have remembered My covenant.” God then offers her famous fourfold expression of deliverance — “I will free you from your labors, deliver you from their bondage, redeem you with an outstretched arm, and I will take you to be my people” (Ex. 6:5-6 paraphrased).
This fourfold promise of redemption is so central to our Jewish narrative that it forms the basis of our Passover celebration, and God’s remembering is also a central element of the Zichronot (remembrances) service on Rosh Hashanah.
Rashi reminds us that the covenant God was mentioning was the enigmatic encounter between God and Abraham hundreds of years earlier, where God appeared in a vision and said, “Your offspring shall be strangers in a land not their own,” but that God “will execute judgment on the nation they serve.”
But the phrase led me to a more basic question. How is it that God could “remember” her covenant? Did God forget and then was shaken awake by the cries of her people?
One way to make sense of these questions is to redefine “remember.” Rather than just meaning “call to mind,” consider the idea of “remember” to mean something more like “affirm.” God’s connection to the people’s suffering moves her to reaffirm her mission statement about the obligation to redeem suffering. God did not suddenly remember something long forgotten, but rather she was able to re-focus her mind on what was central to her work and always a part of her consciousness but that had been shifted out of focus.
Being in relationship is central to the act of redemption. Were God not in relationship with the Israelites, she would not have heard their cries and would not have been jolted back into focus. At the time of slavery, many Chasidic masters paint the picture that the spiritual connection between the Israelites and God was at an all-time low. And yet, in spite of this, there remained a portal to the divine. That is, in spite of the spiritual estrangement, there was always a connection between God and her people.
This parsha can have strong implications for humans striving toward liberation. Like the divine, we, too, need to develop and articulate a strong, clear mission statement for our work to repair the world. Do we want to end racism? Create a zero-carbon economy? Make quality schools for all? Like God, we, too, can get distracted and lose focus, but we always have the ability to reaffirm our commitments for redemption.
Might the Torah also be teaching us to remember to cultivate relationships with those who suffer? It’s one thing for me to talk about the impact of globalization and another to tell the story of the Uruguayan family whose one-room home in a shantytown I helped build during an alternative spring break several years ago. And when we become discouraged and overwhelmed, feeling pressed by the bonds of our limited time and attention, we, too, can remember that our connection to other human beings is always there, just like God’s connection to the Israelites, even when they were in exile.
The path of liberation work is not easy. We forget. We get discouraged. We sometimes feel hopeless to build change in the world. But as this parsha reminds us, we are spiritually hardwired to respond to and act on suffering in the world.
God’s fourfold promise to “free, deliver, redeem and take” reminds us that there are many paths to bringing change to the world. There is a path of inner work — how can I cultivate the qualities I want to see more of in the world, such as compassion, patience and love? There is the path of tzedek — of putting one’s voice and body into the things core to our raison d’être. And there is the continual work of building and deepening relationships with those who are most vulnerable in today’s world.
May we each follow the inspiration of our redemption narrative to tackle the many challenges in today’s narrow places.
Nathan Martin is the associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Media and director of student life at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.