“Middle Eastern tyrant brutalizes his people and causes them to flee for their lives.” This has become a common trope in news stories in recent years, and feels particularly acute right now. According to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, there are nearly 4.5 million refugees from the Syrian civil war and interwoven regional conflicts.
Some in Europe and the United States are dithering, uncertain of what to do. Others are actively stoking the fires of xenophobia, and speaking out against the refugees. A notable few are fulfilling their ethical obligations to welcome those who so desperately need a place of refuge.
Still fewer among us can hear the voices of refugees themselves.
This owes to linguistic differences, logistical challenges, and the nature of the news media, to be sure. But it also underscores how difficult it is for us to truly hear people who have suffered so greatly.
How can we comprehend what it’s like to have a cluster bomb go off in your neighborhood? How can we possibly understand what it is like to be caught between ISIS on one side and the forces of a merciless dictator on the other? Even if words could express these terrible realities, our minds could not sort through them or make sense of them. We protect ourselves from the pain of refugees by allowing their suffering to remain incomprehensible to us. It is as though they are not speaking at all.
The challenge of hearing the plight of the refugee has been around since the time of the Torah.
We often presume that Moses and the Israelites were simply refugees following the exodus from Egypt. But Moses had been a refugee before. He first flees Pharaoh’s wrath (in Exodus 2) after killing an unusually brutal Egyptian taskmaster. Pharaoh “seeks to slay Moses” – but Moses escapes to safety in the relative wilderness of Midian.
Moses finds himself – and God – during this time in Midian. It proves to be a turning point for Moses. Yet his early trauma as a refugee may explain his enduring concern that neither the Israelites nor Pharaoh can even hear him, much less heed his words.
In this week’s Torah portion, God commands Moses to escalate his conflict with Pharaoh and demand the freedom of the Israelites. Evoking the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God describes hearing the pain of the Israelites, suffering as slaves in Egypt, and feeling called to respond. We, too, must not overlook the sacred nature of hearing and responding to the plight of those suffering.
Moses himself fears being unheard. Much is made of the particular words that Moses uses to convey his self-doubt as a rising leader of the Israelites and bearer of God’s message. In Exodus 6:12, Moses expresses his fears aloud to God: The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of impeded speech! (JPS Translation). How can Moses possibly lead if he is not even heard?
Commentators make much of the Hebrew words used here, arel s’fatayim–literally, one who does not have circumcised lips. Some ascribe a physical speech impediment to Moses, while others delve into the metaphorical nature of this phrase. I wonder if that pairing of words pertains less directly to Moses’ actual speaking abilities – made manifest time and time again throughout the Torah – and more to his fear of being unheard or ignored.
Yes, even a person of Moses’ stature and ability could not always be heard following his escape from Pharaoh’s brutality. Imagine how poorly we are hearing the voices of today’s refugees. Their plight cannot be ignored; it should be met with just action and compassionate policies. But this must all begin with empathy – and ultimately with our purposeful hearing of their stories.