Shabbat Va’Era: Time to Grow Up


The words of HaShem came to Moshe: “I am The Source of That Which Was, Will Be, Is – your ancestors knew me as a Sheltering Mother; they did not come to this Awareness which is now Yours.” Exodus 6.2-3
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This period of time, the week that was and the one that will be, are a time the likes of which we have not known in our lifetime: the juxtaposition of the invasion of the U.S. Capitol by an armed mob which included members of police and national guards, and the Inauguration of a new U.S. President, which will take place G*d willing in just a few days, on Wednesday January 20 2021.

The ancient Israelite awareness of HaShem here being taught to Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our teacher, is perfectly timed to invite us into reflection upon the necessary links between last week and this, and between the experience of the ancestors and that of the People of Israel led by Moshe, Miriam and Aaron.

When we are young, we know only the Source of Shaddai, the mothering, nurturing source of life symbolized by the breast, that original source of life upon which we all depended as infants. Young children, psychologically speaking, are focused upon personal physical survival before anything else.

When we are feeling threatened for our very physical survival, we too focus very narrowly. What can I depend upon? what will keep me safe above all else?

It has been noted by many commentators and scholars that the Torah sketches the birth, growth and maturation not only of some heroic (or otherwise) individuals, but also of the Jewish people. Here in the beginning of the Book of Exodus, a shift is occurring that comes precisely well-timed for us.

The end of Eden, as it were, comes when in the process of maturing, we become aware that life is not safe. And so our teacher Rashi explains how it is that HaShem can say to Moshe that the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of Genesis did not know the Name HaShem (the yud hey vav hey) when we can see it right there, in the Torah scroll, used in reference to the Ultimate in the lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah? 

I HaShem was not recognized by them as Faithful and Reliable, for I did not fulfill promises to them in their lifetimes. – Rashi to Ex 6.3

Our earliest ancestors – those who belong to all of us as the earliest examples of what it means to struggle toward a spiritual awareness beyond our full comprehension (even as life is!) – never knew a safe resting place for their lives. The fullest expression of their spiritual path was limited by their ability to mature into the knowledge that life is not safe. Life is not fair. We are not always going to be protected by El Shaddai, the breast that saved us when we were infants.

Recognizing HaShem is the difficult, life-long challenge for Moshe and his People of Israel and it is still our challenge today. To fully grasp that our spiritual path does not bring physical safety – only spiritual certainty, and only then on a good day – requires our understanding that life is a wandering in a wilderness, “a long process of maturation that has no definite end.” (Pardes, The Biography of Ancient Israel, 3)

Events in the U.S. Capitol only solidify the fearful surmise many have felt for some time: the institutions of capitalism and democracy are twisted out of the promising shape they held for our parents or grandparents when they sought refuge in this country, and reassured themselves and each other that this is the greatest country in the world for Jews and for everyone else as well. At this moment we do not know if the oligarchy that seeks to overthrow elected government will be successful in that mission.

We cannot guarantee safety, neither by prayer nor by buying a gun. All we can do is try to be as grown up as we can about the reality of our lives. The choices we make, by which we are known and defined as human beings and as Jews, should stand up under this pressure, or they are not good choices. 

We cannot guarantee safety, but we can rely upon the three pillars that keep our personal world, as a Jewish community, strong: gathering in community for learning in Torah study, gathering in community for prayer and reflection, and seeking each other’s welfare the best we can in acts of tzedakah.

The people of Israel have to learn to grow up in order to make it through the wilderness. Just as Jacob spent his life wavering between his childish Jacob behavior and that of the adult Israel, so do we as individuals and as a people. We will witness the “one step forward, two steps back” struggle of the Israelites from now through the rest of the Jewish year of Torah study. Some will be lost as others continue onward toward a future we cannot define.

This is true of those who will seek to become unidentifiable as Jews in pursuit of safety; this is true of those who turn away from any uncertainty. We felt we had been promised safety, and that promise was not fulfilled: these are difficult times! The god El Shaddai of infancy does not exist; the god HaShem of maturity is not conducive to emotional uprisings (see Korakh, the Golden Calf, et al).

The last refuge of those who do not want to grow up is to demand safety. To truly become a mature community is to recognize that one must do one’s best every day, because no one knows what will happen tomorrow – except that we will still be there for each other, offering compassion and encouragement for each other when the wilderness of our fears howls.

Hazak, hazak, v’nithazek – let us hold on, and hold on to each other

Shabbat shalom
Rabbi Ariel

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]. (Sefaria.org)
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 VaEra: Revelation Hurts

The name of this week’s parashat hashavua is VaEra, “I appeared.” This, simply put and so very understated, is the epic moment in which Moshe experiences Divine Revelation. G*d becomes unmistakably, believably, manifest. All subsequent experiences of revelation in Jewish history fall short of it; as the last words of the Torah will put it many weeks from now,
 וְלֹא-קָם נָבִיא עוֹד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל, כְּמֹשֶׁה, אֲשֶׁר יְדָעוֹ יְהוָה, פָּנִים אֶל-פָּנִים. Never again has there appeared a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom HaShem knew face to face (Ex.34.10)
Interestingly, this is not the first meeting of Moshe and G*d – that happened last week, in parashat Shemot. This is different: Moshe has gone to meet with Pharaoh, and been rebuffed; his first foray into politics and social justice actually met with the opposite result. Pharaoh vindictively increases the Israelites’ misery by upping production quotas and withholding the necessary material. The Israelites turn on Moshe, blaming him for just making everything worse.
The Torah indicates, therefore, that it is only then, after failure, recrimination and demoralization, that Moshe experiences something deeper, and more revealing, about the holy touch he senses. What happened to cause this opportunity for deeper connection, greater revelation?
Jewish commentaries from Rashi to the Lubavitcher Rebbe are intrigued by the comparison G*d makes, as the Torah depicts G*d saying to Moshe
וָאֵרָא, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אֶל-יִצְחָק וְאֶל-יַעֲקֹב–בְּאֵל שַׁדָּי; וּשְׁמִי יְהוָה, לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but by My name יה-ה I did not appear to them (Ex.6.3)
Our teachers note that El Shaddai can be translated as El “G*d” sheh “that is” Dai “enough,” in other words, they experienced as much as was enough for them. They did not question, they accepted the touch of G*d and did not ask for more. Moshe’s experience is different. To the Patriarchs G*d was revealed only as El Sha-dai, relating to them via their constraints and limitations within the created reality. But to Moshe and that generation, enslaved, suffering and miserable, G*d was revealed, for the very first time, in essential truth.
Revelation, in other words, hurts. When one is rocked back on one’s heels and feels that one’s efforts are for nothing, when one feels rejected and misunderstood, this is the moment  when one may actually be on the cusp of a deeper, more authentic opportunity. The moment of feeling hurt requires us to look within ourselves to see where our true strength lies – and only when the ego is diminished are we able to sense the real quality of our own connection to the rest of the world, and to the wholeness of the universe which we call G*d for lack of a better term.
As Rabbi Akiba once put it, why does the Shema command us to “place these words upon the heart.” Why not in the heart? Because the heart is usually so confident, so distracted, so unaware of its own need. On all those normal days, place the words upon your heart. Then, on the day when the heart breaks, they will be able to get in.
Moshe initially wanted nothing to do with the full depth of awareness of G*d which was offered him; it is not easy nor pleasant to have our minds and hearts stretched in such a challenging way. But our entire history hung upon his ability to step up. What history hangs upon ours?
Here is history offering itself to us: this coming Monday we celebrate the memory of Martin Luther King Jr on the Federally recognized day devoted to him. This year, I invite you to join me in supporting those who seeks to “take back” that memory and hear that prophetic voice to its fullest, essential truth. I offer you his Letter From Birmingham Jail as a place to start.
Yes, Shabbat is for rest and reflection – and regathering our energy to go back out there on Sunday, and Monday, and all the days ahead, to seek what happens in the space after failure, demoralization, and heartache. Let’s go back out there together.

Shabbat Va’Era: Reveal Yourself

In last week’s parashat hashavua we witnessed a rapid transition in which the people of Israel went from a good life in Exile to a persecuted, miserable slavery. At the end of the  parashah Moshe, after his first attempt to organize the people of Israel, is discouraged.

וַיָּשָׁב מֹשֶׁה אֶל י-ה, וַיֹּאמַר:  אד-נָי, לָמָה הֲרֵעֹתָה לָעָם הַזֶּה–לָמָּה זֶּה, שְׁלַחְתָּנִי.

Moshe went back to HaShem and said: ‘HaShem, why are you making this situation worse? why would You send me, if this is the outcome?

וּמֵאָז בָּאתִי אֶל-פַּרְעֹה, לְדַבֵּר בִּשְׁמֶךָ, הֵרַע, לָעָם הַזֶּה; וְהַצֵּל לֹא-הִצַּלְתָּ, אֶת-עַמֶּךָ.

Ever since I spoke to Pharaoh in Your name, he has dealt harshly with this people, and You! You have not saved Your people.’ (Ex. 5.22-23)

After the marching and rallying of last week came the flurry of destructive executive orders. Why is it getting even worse? we might cry out as Moshe did.

Generations of commentary have sought to understand our own efforts for justice by studying this passage from our Torah. At the beginning of our parashah for this week, G*d replies:

  וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹקים, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, אֲנִי י-ה.

G*d spoke unto Moses, saying: ‘I am HaShem;

ג  וָאֵרָא, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אֶל-יִצְחָק וְאֶל-יַעֲקֹב–בְּקל שַׁדָּי; וּשְׁמִי י-ה, לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם.

I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, as a mighty G*d, but by My name YHWH I did not reveal to them. (Ex. 6.2-3)

The great Torah interpreter Rashi noticed the order of Names of G*d: First Elohim, a generic word for G*d also used to refer to other gods, is a word associated in Jewish tradition with G*d’s Judgment, where the Four Letter Name which we refer to by using the word HaShem (“the Name”) is associated with G*d’s attribute of mercy.  A later commentator, the Piacezsner Rebbe from the Warsaw Ghetto (who wrote during the Holocaust), carries this insight forward to create a teaching that goes like this:

Harsh judgment is not always the way to bring people together; to get people to listen to you, and maybe even hear you, takes gentleness, kindness, and mercy.

We must open multiple fronts, my friends and companions in Resistance. Especially in #JewishResistance, we will be most effective and most true to ourselves and our tradition when we follow Isaiah in “crying out with full voice, making our voices a shofar” (58.1) and sometimes we must quietly speak our truth and listen openly to that of others. This tradition in Judaism is called makhloket l’shem shamayim; it challenges us to act not only with justice, but also with mercy, as a moment may demand.

We are taught that we are made in the Image of G*d and we are to be as G*d. Here that means to follow G*d’s example and reveal not only the Judgement side of ourselves, but also the side that shows Mercy, Compassion, and Love. It is as the signs of the marchers say: it is not hate against hate that wins; Love conquers Hate. 

It took the Israelites a long time to leave Egypt. For us as well, the road ahead is long. We won’t be marching every part of it – sometimes we’ll be resting, coming together for reinforcement, meditating on what is happening both without and within, and finding our balance with each other’s help. 

Shabbat Va’Era: How Does G-d Appear To You?

The parashat hashavua, the Torah reading of the week, begins in an entirely perplexing way:

ב  וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹהִים, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, אֲנִי יְהוָה.

G-d spoke to Moses, saying to him: ‘I am YHVH;

ג  וָאֵרָא, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אֶל-יִצְחָק וְאֶל-יַעֲקֹב–בְּאֵל שַׁדָּי; וּשְׁמִי יְהוָה, לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם.

I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as El Shaddai but by My name YHVH I was not known to them.” (Exodus 6.2-3)

Now, all it takes is a quick backward glance in the Torah to the stories of G-d interacting with the Patriarchs to see that this declaration is not, exactly, true. The book of Genesis specifically records the Name YHVH in communications between G-d and all three.

So what does it mean to say that G-d was not known by them in the way that Moshe knows G-d? It is easy enough to suggest that each of us knows the sense of a presence of G-d in our lives (or not) in our own way, and so it’s obvious that Moshe, given his special role, would have an entirely different experience of G-d than those who went before him. But there are deeper levels of understanding here.  

In the scholarly discipline of theology this question might be posed as regarding the quality and impact of revelation. Each Patriarch’s experience of G-d is echoed in the later theological insights offered by commentators:

Jacob was the successfully assimilated Jew. He was living far from the Land of Israel and was doing very well – he had become rich, and had wives and children, and no real plans to fulfill the vow he had made as a young man to return home. And then we read: “YHVH said to Jacob, return to the land of your fathers where you were born, and I will be with you” (31.3).  In response, Jacob packed up his wives, children, a lot of sheep, and other effects, and left the home he had made for his ancestral home.

“They did not know the faithfulness implicit in My Name, since I made them a promise and did not fulfill it” – Rashi (France, 1040-1105). Jacob’s experience of G-d was one in which he could put off fulfilling a promise – or perhaps letting it drop all together. Here is the picture of a distant, or even non-existent, G-d. You can say what you like and not follow up, you can do what you like without worry, because there is no Divine follow-up. Until there is. To his credit, Jacob responded with admirable alacrity when YHVH finally appeared to him in a convincing, commanding way. 

Have you ever known anyone who acted as if no one was looking, and then one day suddenly decided to clean up his act? Now, for the first time, living an ethical life is meaningful in a way that sweeps aside all doubt?

Isaac was in the midst of struggling with neighboring tribes to dig a well that they would not contest, and find room for his family to live and thrive. He dug three wells, one after the next, and each became a source of strife. Finally he moved his tents to the next ridge and then “YHVH appeared to [Isaac] that night and said, “I am the G-d of your father Abraham. Fear not, for I am with you” (26.24). In response, Isaac was able to relax and know that he was home. He built an altar and proclaimed the Name there.

“From this it emerges that the text is a pointer, not to G-d’s Name but to G-d’s meaning” – Isaac ben Moses Arama (Spain, 1420 – Salonika, 1494). Isaac was trying to do the right thing, moving from each well when it was contested, but couldn’t get a break. Similarly, his namesake, Rabbi Isaac Arama, was among the exiles expelled from Spain near the end of his life. We know G-d through the characteristics that affect our lives: those who have good lives know G-d as the Compassionate, those who suffer know G-d as the Stern Judge, and those who are rescued from disaster known G-d as the Protector. 

There are those among us who believe that our experience of G-d defines G-d, a breathtaking inversion of the humility of the Psalmist who asserted: 

David’s Song of Ascent:

O YHVH, my heart is not proud, nor my glance haughty,

I no longer run after that which is beyond me, too wonderful for me

my soul is quiet and still, like a weaned child in mother’s arms;

O Israel, hope in YHVH forever!  (Psalm 131)

In the best-known story of all, a messenger of YHVH calls to Abraham not to slay his son Isaac in the infamous and difficult story of the Akedah, the “binding” (22.11). In gratitude, Abraham sacrifices a ram.

“G-d appeared to the Patriarchs as an expression of the natural order; G-d’s miracles were apparent to them without violating it….[but] the People of Israel [will] know My great Name through which I shall perform wonders for them” – Maimonides (Spain, 1135 – Egypt, 1204). Abraham acted without expecting miracles, and he saw them anyway. 

How does G-d appear to you? On this week in which the idea of revelations of G-d is once again misused to justify the evil men and women choose to do, can you find it in yourself to follow those in our past who taught that appearances may be deceiving, and to assert that there is more that is possible? There is, after all, a new revelation to Moshe, because in this week’s parashah we are offered a new understanding of an inspiration, and support, that will move an empire of hatred, split a sea of doubt, and bring us to a mountain of vision.