Shabbat VaEra: To Appear, Perchance to be Seen

Our parashat hashavua (the week’s Torah text) describes the ultimate I-Thou moment, between Moshe Rabbenu (the way Moses is known in our tradition, as “Moshe our Rabbi”) and HaShem (the way G*d is known in our tradition. Out of respect, the word “adonai” is avoided, in speech and in print, outside of prayer).

‘וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֵלָ֖יו אֲנִ֥י ה
G*d spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am HaShem.
וָאֵרָ֗א אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֛ם אֶל־יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֖ב בְּאֵ֣ל שַׁדָּ֑י וּשְׁמִ֣י ה’ לֹ֥א נוֹדַ֖עְתִּי לָהֶֽם׃
I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name ‘ה. (Exodus 6.3)
This passage, which gives our parashah its name, Va”Era (“I appeared”), drives the commentators crazy. After all, we can easily demonstrate that the Tetragrammaton (the polite Greek way to say “four letter word,” in this case referring to the personal Name by which Jews refer to our G*d) does appear in the texts describing the lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. So what can this possibly mean? Does the book of Exodus not even know the book of Genesis? Who edited this collection of sacred texts anyway?
The brilliant medieval commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, affectionately known by all Torah studying Jews today by his acronym Rashi, has a wonderful, mind-opening solution to the question:
It is not written here לא הודעתי [My name HaShem] I did not make known to them, but לא נודעתי [by My name, HaShem], was I not known [unto them] — i. e. I was not recognised by them in My attribute of “keeping faith”, by reason of which My name is called ה׳, which denotes that I am certain to substantiate My promise, for, indeed, I made promises to them but did not fulfill them [during their lifetime]. (
Rashi invites us to take a very close look at the grammar of the words here. It is not written “I did not announce My Name to them” but “My Name was not known to them.” How incredibly prosaic, how ironic, how every-day-inevitable this is! To “appear,” it seems, is not necessarily to “be seen,” much less to be understood.
We can all relate to the possible interpretations of the difference between these two phrases, which essentially can be expressed as the difference between “I said” and “you heard.”
It might mean that I keep telling you something but it does not sink in;
or perhaps that I said this but you heard that;
or that, as Rashi says, what you heard was a word that remains unfulfilled in your world.
Much of our Jewish ethical tradition is based upon the kind of listening that the philosopher Martin Buber described in his work I and Thou (his philosophy is full of his Jewish experience and wisdom). After all, we are a people which historically declares shema – “listen!” as our most central saying. Buber teaches that by closely listening to another, we come to really see who that person is, and not only in relationship to us.
This is a deliberate ethic of behavior which is easily overlooked in our daily running about. So much doesn’t sink in, sometimes because we’ve been so bombarded by harshness that we have developed our defenses against really listening. But Rashi’s insight, in the final analysis, indicates this: if we cannot really hear, then much will remain unfulfilled for us. We will hear what we perceive to be promises, but they will go unrealized. We will hear but misunderstand. It won’t sink in. Yet Jewish ethics insists that a word, once spoken, is sacred and must be fulfilled.
Va’Era literally means “I was seen.” Each of us needs to be seen – something we do best when we listen to each other carefully, compassionately, and  without thinking ahead to what we ourselves will say next. On this Shabbat, may you open up to your own deep and generous capacity for listening, and in so doing find the reassurance you need that you, also, will be heard, and seen.

Shabbat Tazria-Metzora: Lift Every Voice

Why does the mind so often choose to fly away at the moment the word waited for all one’s life is about to be spoken?  (Alice Walker, The Temple of My Familiar)
This week we have a Torah double-header. Our parashat hashavua (Torah text for this week) is two: both Tazria and Metzora. Both refer to conditions that can affect the surface of skin or clothes, or even the walls of your house. Some of the conditions turn out not to be serious, and some clearly are; what all have in common is that in the beginning they are mysterious. We’re not sure where the condition comes from or how it will turn out.
it’s curious, and certainly objectionable, that these conditions are considered to signify some moral lesson or failing. We reject the idea that someone who recovers from a skin ailment must bring an atonement gift to G*d, as we can see clearly indicated in Lev 14.19 “the priest shall make expiation for the one being cleansed of affliction.”
Our ancestors the Rabbis also objected to the idea that someone suffering from affliction needed to make atonement. The Talmud does something rather ingenious with this situation in their interpretation of the word for the one suffering from a skin affliction, metzora. The scholar Resh Lakish taught that we should understand this word as a variation on the phrase motzi shem ra’, “one who speaks evil [of another].” (BT Arakhin 15b)
In other words, the real affliction we have to watch out for, and the real contagion we should fear, is that of gossip and other forms of speaking ill of others. Indeed, in any Jewish community that acts upon its ethics, that is an act that requires atonement.
Our tradition holds that we must take great care with the words we speak, as they are powerful and can cause others great distress. From this we also can learn that we should take care to listen carefully to the sincere words offered by anyone and everyone with whom we interact. This idea is at the heart of the I-Thou teaching of the philosopher Martin Buber: to be truly present, in sincerity, in the presence of another person is to listen to their words, and to ensure that they know they are heard. Behind this teaching is a more ancient one – each one of us may be, at any moment, speaking an Eternal Word that needs to be heard by the one listening. Each one of us, we are taught, is a messenger of Eternal Truth to each other, and so we must find a way to pay attention, to quiet down the mind and its endless lists, and listen carefully, lest we miss it.
Think of the people in your life trying to get your attention, trying to share something important and not always knowing the best time or way to get the word to you. Sometimes, no matter how many emails or phone calls or tugs on the sleeve you get, you just can’t be present for the word that is trying to get your attention. Other times, the letter goes to the wrong address, or the writing is hard to understand, or the message is too alien to accept, and we recoil from it, and the messenger.
All around us, human beings lift up their voices: trying to explain, asking for help, expressing loneliness or happiness or pain. May we remember to give the gift we need to receive. May we not turn away from the word that another offers us, that we might be heard as well.

Eclipse Torah: Martin Buber on the Eclipse of G*d

Such is the nature of this hour. But what of the next? 

Religion is essentially the act of holding fast to G*d. And that does not mean holding fast to an image that one has made of G*d, nor even holding fast to the faith in G*d that one has conceived. It means holding fast to the existing G*d. The earth would not hold fast to its conception of the sun (if it had one), nor to its connection with it, but with the sun itself.

In contrast to religion so understood, philosophy is here regarded as the process, reaching from the time when reflection first became independent to its more contemporary crisis, the last stage of which is the intellectual letting go of G*d.

This process begin with our no longer contenting ourselves, as pre-philosophical people did, with picturing the living G*d, to whom one formerly only called – with a call of despair or rapture which occasionally became its first name – as a Something, a thing among things, a being among beings, an It.

The beginning of philosophizing means that this Something changes from an object of imagination, wishes, and feelings to one that is conceptually comprehensible, to an object of thought.


…on the other side, in the development of religion itself….instead of understanding events as calls which make demands on one, one wishes oneself to demand without having to hearken. “I have,” we say, “power over the powers I conjure.” And that continues, with sundry modifications, wherever one celebrates rites without being turned to the Thou and without really meaning its Presence…..

One who is not present perceives no Presence.

…and now one who is seemingly holding fast to G*d becomes aware of the eclipsed Transcendence.

What is it that we mean when we speak of an eclipse of G*d which is even now taking place? Through this metaphor we make the tremendous assumption that we can glance up to G*d with our “mind’s eye,” or rather being’s eye, as with our bodily eye to the sun, and that something can step between our existence and G*d’s as between the earth and the sun. That this glance of the being exists, wholly unillusory, yielding no images yet first make possible all image, no other court in the world attest than that of faith. It is not to be proved; it is only to be experienced; we have experienced it. And that other, that which steps in between, one also experiences, today.


In our age, the I-it relation, gigantically swollen, has usurped, practically uncontested, the mastery and the rule….this I that is unable to say Thou, unable to meet a being essentially, is lord of the hour. This selfhood that has become omnipotent, with all the It around it, can naturally acknowledge neither G*d nor any genuine absolute which manifests itself to us as of non-human origin. It steps in between and shuts off from us the light of heaven.

Such is the nature of this hour. But what of the next? It is a modern superstition that the character of an age acts as fate for the next. One lets it prescribe what is possible to do and hence what it permitted. One surely cannot swim against the stream, one says. But perhaps one can swim with a new stream whose source is still hidden? In another image, the I-Thou relation has gone into the catacombs – who can say with how much greater power it will step forth! Who can say when the I-it relation will be directed anew to it assisting place and activity!

The most important events in the history of that embodied possibility called human begin are the occasionally occurring beginnings of new epochs, determined by forces previously invisible or unregarded. Each age is, of course, a continuation of the preceding one, but a continuation can be confirmation and it can be refutation.

Something is taking place in the depths that as yet needs no name. Tomorrow even it many happen that it will be beckoned to from the heights, across the heads of the earthy archons. The eclipse of the light of G*d is no extinction; even tomorrow that which has stepped in between may give way.

Martin Buber, from Eclipse of G*d, excerpted in The Writings of Martin Buber, ed. Will Herberg (1956)





Shabbat Mishpatim / Shabbat Shekalim: Community – The Difficulty Is In the Details

Every year we study once again the account of the moment when our people stood at the foot of Mt Sinai, witnessed a revelation, and became a community. Literally a “peak moment,” our commentators teach that this was the only time in all the history of our People of Israel when we were of one mind.

That’s a warning. This week’s reading, parashat Mishpatim, continues with that revelation, now with the details of the ancient code of law meant to guide us in ethical paths. It’s the proverbial “morning after” and upon looking at the fine print of the covenant we’ve just concluded, we’re feeling some ambivalence. We look at each other and sometimes wonder – are these the people with whom I’m meant to hold hands, that we might go out into the world together?

Perhaps that’s always true; perhaps the natural reaction to the step forward into commitment is to step back. It’s often true in relationships and in jobs. Having made common cause with another, we circle back to be sure of our own parameters. Torah comes to warn us to be careful: the community to which you’re committed does not exist unless you find your common cause with it. Jews sigh: amkha, we call ourselves, literally meaning “Your people” (that capital Y is deliberate). 

Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em may be true, but we often try to have it both ways. In the accounts, both Torah and the midrash which fills out the teachings regarding the time our people spent at Sinai, our ancestors splinter into groups, making choices: these are the people I include in my community, those I don’t. 

When the prophets condemn ancient Israelite society this is where they begin: the abandonment of widow and orphan. Sure, it goes on: our prophetic tradition also singles out corrupt business practices and fraudulent politics – but it begins with a denunciation of the way we turn away from each other, and the half-asleep way in which we do it.

According to Jewish tradition, we can learn Torah from nearly anything in the world, when we see how our learning casts illumination onto our sense of Jewish identity and meaning. With this in mind, I invite you to consider a modern sort of midrashic insight offered us by computer word processing. When we create a document, we can opt for “widow and orphan protection” to keep a single line of a paragraph from ending up alone on a page due to the effects of automatic formatting.

When we step back from the complete commitment to that community of which we are a part – that utter immersion we sometimes feel, in a moment of emotion or spiritual intensity – we are stepping back from people. We are creating widows and orphans. 

Jewish community is a funny thing; it’s neither your family, nor is it only your book group, or even your mah jongg group. It’s something not well defined by our liberal American individuality, for it is a place in which we are meant to care for each other regardless of whether we share in each other’s individual interests or tastes. We Jews who live in the United States, many of us have been conditioned out of the ability to find our place in this communal mode, and it’s difficult to learn. 

But in these days when we are feeling under siege, when we need safe spaces and feel keenly that we cannot carry our burdens alone, Jewish community is a lucky inheritance for us to have. It takes time, yes – and it redeems time:

You yourself must begin. Existence will remain meaningless for you if you yourself do not penetrate into it with active love and if you do not in this way discover its meaning for yourself. Everything is waiting to be hallowed by you; it is waiting to be disclosed in its meaning and to be realized in it by you.  – Martin Buber (Meaning and Community: Implications of Martin Buber’s Dialogue, by Ronald C Arnett)

Shalom Shir Tikvah Learning Community,

We have begun reading from the third book of the Torah in our ritual cycle; the book VaYikra, translated as “Leviticus”. The word refers to all things priestly, literally, of the Levites. It gives precise instructions for how the ancient sacrificial cult was to be enacted, and probably was originally meant only for the priests, as a sort of manual.

Sacrifice – killing animals in a ritual way, offering them up along with grain, wine and water (with incense and salt added) – here is a whole swath of Torah that seems so far beyond relevance for us today. 

Yet the Jewish dance with Torah is a committed one; we continue to hold on even when the steps aren’t so certain. As Martin Buber taught, we who are covenanted with G-d see the Torah as our ketubah. We are always to accord it the same respect that we would a human interlocutor. That is to say, we do not decide in advance if the person speaking to us will offer words worth considering. Rather, we grant that courtesy in advance, for the sake of authentic communication. In the same way, with every verse, we give Torah credit for having something to say to us that is worth hearing, and keep our minds and hearts open for what it might be.

We begin to bring the conversation out of obsolescence and into provocative territory simply by noting the Hebrew name of the book. VaYikra, “And he called out.” This is the first word of the narrative, yet unlike in good English grammar, there is no named subject, no definition of “he”. One must go back to the preceding words, at the end of the book Shemot (Exodus), to find the referent. It is G-d, calling from the newly-built sacred space that the Israelites just spent the last few parshas constructing. 

The lack of clarity here invites us in; it is not so clear what is summoning or to whom, and so we can ask ourselves; in what way does this apply to me? what, for example, summons me, even if I am not entirely clear yet about it? What is it that pulls at us so softly that we cannot quite name it?

Jewish tradition offers us a way to listen more closely to that which summons us. It comes from an interesting aspect of this very first word. As written in the Torah, the last letter is too small: 

That first letter, the alef, sits there and says to us darsheni, “interpret me!” And so we consider: the first letter is first, which connotes importance, even centrality; it is not a surprise, then, that the alef is the first letter of the word you need to express yourself, your “I”: ani.  This letter’s place in the initial word of the book VaYikra can be seen to offer us a lesson all by its small self. It is the insight taught by the mystics: if you want to experience G-d, get your “I” out of the way.

When you feel that uncertain something, that invitation to consider not what is but what might be if you are ready to contemplate a new learning, don’t let your “I” stop you. It will say “I don’t believe” or “I don’t want to change” or “I already understand” or even “I have a right to….” 

This first word of the book that calls out is calling out to you not to let surface strangeness put you off. It is not dangerous to corral your “I” (a mystical practice called tzimtzum, voluntary contraction of the self) when you do it from a place of choice. And when you do it, leaving defenses behind and making room for that summons, the word VaYikra hints at what you might find – something very yakar, “precious”. And if not a certain finding, certainly a sense of something pulling you toward what might be, yet, to learn.