At the end of Exodus chapter 2, we read that, in their pain and anguish, the Israelites cry out. To whom they cry, we do not know. The text does not give us the specifics of their cry. We only know that God hears their cries and God reacts.
Perhaps the Israelites did not know to whom they should cry for help. They had been in Egypt for 400 years and had been enslaved for a good portion of that time. Maybe they did not remember who they were or from whom and whence they came. It is quite possible that they did not know the stories of their ancestors, and did not know the specifics of the covenantal relationship with God that they inherited as a people. So, at this point, they did not even know to whom they should turn to find help.
That God answers this call establishes a model for us. When we hear a call for help, even if it is not addressed specifically to us, Torah teaches us that we have to act. We have to answer that call.
In contrast, this week’s Torah portion, Bo, tells the story of a cry that was not answered. By the time we get to chapter 10 of Exodus, the Egyptians have already suffered seven devastating plagues: water turned to blood, frogs teeming from the river, lice, wild animals, diseased livestock, boils and hail. They have suffered physically and emotionally — the onslaught of disaster after disaster would have made anyone perpetually afraid. Add to this the fact that they lacked water and have had their property and livestock severely compromised.
At this point, some of the Egyptians cried out. We read that Pharaoh’s courtiers and advisers urge Pharaoh to let the Israelites go to worship their God. They say to Pharaoh, “Don’t you see that Egypt is lost?” We hear their pain, their anguish and their burden in their cry for an escape from this nightmare. However, as opposed to the Israelites who did not know to whom they cried out, the Egyptians are direct with their calls for help. They ask their ruler, their god in effect, to lift their burden and redeem them. Yet, Pharaoh does not answer their pleas for help. He is so engulfed in his own perspective that he remains stubborn in his insistence that the Israelites remain his slaves.
That, in a nutshell, is the difference between good and evil, righteousness and wickedness, kindness and cruelty. God responds to a call that may or may not have been addressed to God. The call carried with it no promises for adherence to a way of life, or recognition of responsibility to a covenant. Yet God answers anyway. The people were in trouble, and so God responded to their cries. With Pharaoh, it was his own trusted advisers who called for help, who asked Pharaoh directly to act on their behalf. They told Pharaoh exactly what they needed him to do to relieve their suffering. Yet Pharaoh chose not to save them.
Torah warns us not to allow ourselves to be so concerned with ourselves that we ignore the pain of others. Pay attention. When the righteous, following God’s model, see signs of trouble and hear cries for help, they answer. But, when people are, instead, stubborn and unwilling to see others’ pain and burden, even those closest to them cannot find their help and support.
Torah offers us a very clear difference between righteousness and wickedness. Most of us fall somewhere in between. Even those who work hard to follow a righteous path sometimes find themselves behaving like Pharaoh. Can we remember a time when we did not answer a call for help? Was it because we were powerless to help someone, or was it because we, like Pharaoh, sometimes get so caught up in our own direction and the details of our own lives that we have ignored the cry, even when it was within our power to change the situation?
Torah urges us to pay attention, to recognize and hear when others are in pain. So, pause, right at this very moment. Listen carefully. Whose cry for help will you answer?
Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin is a rabbi at Temple Sinai in Oakland. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.