Crying out, and the possibility of change
December 27, 2015
The Exodus from Egypt begins with the deeply-felt cry of the heart. That's what strikes me as I reread this week's Torah portion, Shemot. Torah teaches that the children of Israel, suffering harsh treatment, cried out."They sighed from their bondage, and they cried, and their wails rose up to God" (Ex. 2:23). God took note of their cry, and remembered the covenant with their ancestors. This is the first step in the journey toward freedom which we retell each year at Pesach: a story so core to who we are that we allude to it each week in the Shabbat kiddush, and in our daily liturgy, too.
The first step toward liberation wasn't Moshe seeing the Burning Bush, or going before Pharaoh to demand his people's freedom: it was a krechtz, a heartfelt cry. Torah teaches that we cried out, and God remembered us and answered. One could quibble with the text: why does God need to be reminded? Wasn't God able to see our suffering before we cried out? But maybe the crying-out was important not so much because God needed to be reminded that God's children were in tight straits, but because we ourselves needed to cry out, to acknowledge our own constriction and our own grief.
We've all heard the parable of the frog who jumped into a pot of cold water and acclimated as the water temperature rose, never realizing that the rising temperature spelled impending death. Apparently it isn't true in any scientific sense, but I think there's spiritual truth in that grisly story. One can become accustomed to tight straits in many forms: to pain, and to suffering; to overwork; to being taken for granted or being mistreated. Like the frog in the story, we may not notice when our circumstances become so toxic that they're dangerous.
Sometimes we tell ourselves that our ability to live with pain -- whether physical or emotional -- is a sign of strength. Sometimes we regret our painful circumstances, but don't see any way out of them, so we make a virtue of necessity and learn to live with them. That's a coping mechanism, and it can serve its purpose well. But the downside of that coping mechanism is that it habituates us to our own suffering. And when we're accustomed to our own pain, we don't cry out... a silence which can easily go hand-in-hand with losing faith in the possibility of anything better than where we are.
Torah teaches that when our ancestors cried out in pain, God's compassion was aroused and the process of the Exodus began. Maybe life's circumstance has taught you that crying out doesn't "help," because it doesn't materially change your reality. I believe otherwise. Spiritual life demands authenticity. Sometimes where we authentically are is a place of grief, or constriction, or pain. We have to be willing to feel that -- and to give voice to the cry which comes from that place. In so doing, we open up the possibility of change. And conversely, if we can't let ourselves feel where we are, or can't cry out from where we are, it's worth revisiting that frog parable again.
Maybe crying out will catalyze external change, dramatic change, like the children of Israel leaving slavery in Egypt. Maybe it will spark internal change, a change in our relationship with the place where we are, or a change in our ability to hope for better things. This week's Torah portion reminds me this year that when we cry out, we arouse compassion. I believe we arouse compassion in the Holy One of Blessing. But even if you don't "believe" in that kind of God, consider the possibility that when we cry out, we arouse compassion in human hearts, including our own. From that place of compassion -- maybe especially compassion for ourselves -- a different future can arise.