Va’Era: parashat hashavua commentary

This week’s parashat hashavua, Va’Era, derives its name from a curious assertion on the part of none other than God about the names by which we know God: I am יהוה  – I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob by the name El Shaddai, but my name יהוה they did not come to know. (Ex.6.2-3). What’s a bit strange about this is that if you go back and check the Book of Genesis, that Four Letter Name of God does indeed appear in the text. What does God mean by saying they did not know God by that name?
Our companion in insightful interpretation, the medieval commentator Rashi, writes: “It is not written here I did not make the name known to them but they did not come to know the name.” It’s one thing to hear a name spoken. It is apparently quite another to know the name that one hears spoken. This Name of God, ancient though it is, is not necessarily known, says God.
Knowing is not an easy thing. “One may love a river as soon as one sets eyes upon it; it may have certain features that fit instantly with one’s conception of beauty, or it may recall the qualities of some other river, well known and deeply loved. One may feel in the same way an instant affinity for a man or a woman and know that here is pleasure and warmth and the foundation of deep friendship. In either case the full riches of the discovery are not immediately released – they cannot be; only knowledge and close experience can release them. Rivers, I suppose, are not at all like human beings, but it is still possible to make apt comparisons, and this is one: understanding, whether instinctive and immediate or developing naturally through time or grown by conscious effort, is a necessary preliminary to love. Understanding of another human being can never be complete, but as it grows toward completeness, it becomes love almost inevitably.” (Roderick L. Haig-Brown, “To Know a River”, Home Waters: A Fly-Fishing Anthology. Fireside/Simon & Schuster)
In the process which Moshe undergoes of coming to know God, it will take a lifetime to reach completeness. In just the first few chapters of Exodus, three significant names for God are recorded in the text. Upon consideration of the nuanced echoes of the Torah’s usage and context, you will see that each one of them is less known than you thought:
Most intriguingly, the name El Shaddai, that Name which God says was known to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, is possibly linked to a cognate form from the Akkadian language which refers to breasts. Perhaps El Shaddai, which could refer to a sense of a nurturing Mother God, was precisely the appropriate name for our early ancestors to know God by during those first years in which they took their “baby steps” toward the rich fullness of what we now practice as Judaism.
This name which God presents to Moshe, the Four Letter Name of יהוה , seems not to be a proper name at all. It is not pronounceable in this form. Perhaps, rather, it is a pictograph: a simple invoking of the letters by which one expresses the Hebrew verb “to be” in all its tenses: was, is, will be. In other words, not a proper name, but an evocation of Eternity. All.
And most mysterious of all, the Name God gives Moshe at the bush which burned but was not consumed: Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh. This is often but not necessarily translated “I will be what I will be.” What will yet be is not yet apparent. This is what Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all struggled with.
And now, we, in our turn, struggle with the same uncertainty. There is an immediate, urgent need for clarity – and there will be no clarity just yet. For the Israelites, it will occur only after much suffering, many plagues, and terrible fear, in the midst of a journey from which there is no turning back. And in the midst of all that chaos, they first were able to truly know God ,and then they sang, in the words of the mi kamokha, zeh Eli!  “This is my God!”
One need not know God with certainty, and certainly not with clarity, to make that journey – we are all making it every day. What will be, will be, in time. One day you look up and you are suddenly able to see Eternity, and your place in it.  Then, on that day, you will be able to see that which you will come to know, and name it.

discrimination is so last century

The news that Rev Louie Giglio has withdrawn from the Inauguration because of an inauspicious sermon is both too bad and an encouraging sign. It’s too bad because the Jewish tradition I follow suggests that he should have been given room to atone for words spoken many years ago, and not judged on a position that he may or may not still hold, at least not until he has been given the opportunity to update it. We are all growing spiritual beings, after all, and one learns many things over time. We evolve, as our President has said about his own perspective on marriage equality.

And it’s also an encouraging sign that being gay is becoming a protected status, in our society if not yet under the law. There is a new willingness on the part of our government to express a certain sensitivity to the concerns of gay constituents, and that is a welcome development. One day we might yet become a people equal before the law as well as before God.

The Book of Genesis, which so many “religious” leaders like to quote to their own fancy, is not so easy to rally to the side of those who want to condemn homosexuality. Genesis 1.27 states

“God created the man in his image in the image of God he created him male and female he created them.”

This sentence, which is already a translation of the original Hebrew (and not the only possible translation), is somewhat difficult to understand unless you insert commas. But where to put them? Try this:

“God created the man in his image – in the image of God he created him, male and female – he created them.”

Modern biology has taught us that we are each made up of male and female aspects – we all have both estrogen and testosterone in our hormonal makeup. What if Genesis is expressing this idea, that all of us are both male and female, made up physiologically of both genders, and that gender itself is a spectrum in each one of us? some more male, some more female….a whole shading of gender identities suddenly appears along this speculative spectrum.

At the very least, it doesn’t say “in the image of God, they were created male, white, and heterosexual”. There are many things that the holy texts do not say, but we find what we want to read into them when we need something to divert the public conversation away from thoughtfulness and toward judgments which may or may not be supported by the facts in evidence.

For a long time American society has been laboring under some false impressions about Biblical truth that are more narrowly cultural than transcendently spiritual. In the 21st century we will only make spiritual progress if we are able to open our hearts and ears past assumptions about the text made by others who want to influence us, and toward true hearing with our own ears. The world is upheld through justice, and compassion, and kindness – not through discrimination.

What’s in a (Jewish) name?

Last week in the Jewish world of Torah study we began reading the Book Shemot, called in English (or Greek, actually) “Exodus”We know very well what is going to happen here: the Israelites, who moved to Egypt to escape a famine, have now found themselves enslaved in the service of constructing massive Pharaonic building projects. Everything started going south when a new King arose over Egypt who knew not Joseph. (Ex. 1.8)
How could Joseph, and all he did for Egypt’s survival, have been forgotten? And what does it mean to say that his name was no longer known?
Names are significant here; the Hebrew term for the book of Exodus is Shemot, “Names”; very simply, the book is identified by the topic addressed in the opening verses: These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt….(Ex.1.1).
Yet names are not incidental to the destiny of the Israelites, nor to their redemption, in this saga. A midrash asserts that The people of Israel were redeemed from Egypt for four reasons. 
The first two reasons are that they did not change their Hebrew names while in Egypt and they did not change their language, but continued to speak in Hebrew (Lev. Rabbah 32:5).
To have a Hebrew name is to be part of the Jewish people in a formal way. When someone converts to Judaism, they are given a Hebrew name. All Jews are called to the Torah, and remembered in the grave-side prayer El Maleh Rahamim, by their Hebrew names.
Hebrew names carry much more than a few words of Hebrew (or Yiddish, or Ladino). For Jews, our Hebrew names are a way of communicating much more than the name; it hints at all that communicates, carries and guards Jewish identity.
The Israelites were redeemed from slavery, we are told, because they held on to their Hebrew names, and the memory of history, culture and identity evoked by names.
The real message of the Book we have just begun again for this year’s Torah cycle is that one can never be enslaved by the majority culture unless one lets go of the memory of one’s own name, and where it comes from, and how it was passed along. Jewish memory is the key to Jewish freedom – and freedom, in the Torah, means the freedom to struggle, to wander, and to confront what it takes to become a people.
What is your Hebrew name? what does it mean? what does it carry? how does it anchor your Jewish identity?

Looking for Light in the Connecticut Darkness

ramon_shuttle_sunriseThe Shabbat of Hanukkah comes on the heels of terrible news of tragedy in Newtown Connecticut. As one reporter said, it is truly overwhelming to consider a young man who would shoot, and keep shooting, innocent small children – and his mother, their teacher – at an elementary school, in a kindergarten classroom. That young man is now dead, as are many others, and especially here in Portland, we are still reeling from the shooting at the Clackamas Mall earlier in the week, and we are left stunned.

My heart is like wax, melting within my chest.
My mouth is dry as a shard, my tongue stuck to my jaw
dry as the dust of death.
– Psalm 22
The Jewish response to news of death is barukh Dayan haEmet, which can be interpreted as “I submit to this truth”. This is not a response of resignation or of acceptance. It is a recognition that there is a truth here that may not be avoided. Grief cannot become an excuse for turning our eyes away from what we must learn.
What is the truth here?
Is there a truth that we need to explore that will illuminate the alienation too many suffer, so that some among us lose capacity for human empathy and pain?
Is there some truth in the lack of willingness many of us feel to confront the harshness of the culture which causes Americans to turn to the use of guns?
Is there some truth that must be confronted in the lack of willingness on both sides of the gun debate to be thoughtful, rather than defiant?
Jewish tradition does not say that there is no evil in the world, nor do we shrink from the truth that much evil is done by us human beings to each other. But Jewish teachings do assert that the entire world is supported by learning, by prayer, and by acts of loving kindness. We are to react by learning what we can, praying on it so as to understand, and acting for kindness, for love, and for truth.
The days are still growing shorter as we observe the final nights of Hanukkah; and we must assert the necessity of the lights we kindle. We Jews know as well as anyone what it means to carry on despite terrible tragedy; we will celebrate with our children and know an even greater sense of gratitude for their lives, and determination to face any truth to make all children safe.