When we meet Moses again at the beginning of Parashat Va-eira, there is a question about whether this portion is a continuation of last week’s episode or a new conversation. I’m wondering if the Rabbis who divided the Torah into weekly readings wanted to make it seem as if this is a new conversation.
A short recap of the end of last week’s parashah will help us explore this question. After Pharaoh rebuffs Moses’ demands for liberation and increases the hardships on the Israelites, Moses brazenly confronts God:
O my lord, why did You bring harm upon this people? Why did You send me? Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has dealt worse with this people; and still You have not delivered Your people. (Ex. 5:22-23)
God then seems to close the conversation at the end of Parashat Sh’mot:
Then the Eternal One said to Moses, “You shall soon see what I will do to Pharaoh: he shall let them go because of a greater might; indeed, because of a greater might he shall drive them from this land.” (Ex. 6:1)
Because this week’s reading begins with “God spoke to Moses and said to him…,” it gives the impression that a new conversation is starting, one detached from the previous context:
God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am the Eternal. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name [YHVH; yud-hei-vav-hei]. I also established My covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they lived as sojourners. I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Lord. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the Eternal, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I the Eternal.” (Ex. 6:2-8)
But the midrashic and medieval commentators don’t want to let go so easily of Moses’ doubts. There’s still work to be done in the evolving relationship between Moses and God. Rashi, the medieval French commentator, gets right to the point in linking the beginning of Va-eira to the end of Sh’mot, as he explains: “God called Moses to account for his harsh question” (Rashi on Ex. 6:2).
In what way are verses 2-8 in chapter six a rebuke? Rashi gets this from the midrash, which reads God’s whole speech here as a reprimand of Moses in comparison with the Patriarchs. In midrashic fashion, the Sages imagined that God had more to say in response to God's chosen leader’s doubts. Reading between the lines of the received biblical text, the midrash “makes up” the unedited version of the conversation, so that in response to Moses, God says:
Oh, for those that are gone and cannot be replaced! Many times did I reveal Myself to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make known unto them that my name is Adonai, as I have told you, and they still did not criticize My ways. … And [they] did not complain not at My ways nor asked me, as you asked Me, what is My name. At the commencement of My commission you did inquire of My name and at the end [you raised your brazen question]. (Sh’mot Rabbah 6:4)
Along with the rebuke, God also reveals caring, which gives Moses reassurance: “I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites… ‘Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Eternal’ ” (Ex. 6:5-6). Remember that “the Eternal” or “the Lord” (Adonai in Hebrew) is a substitute for the ineffable YHVH, yud-hei-vav-hei, from the Hebrew root, “to be:” God’s name carries a sense of dependability, of always being there, as explained by Rashi, “I am the Lord”—Who am faithful in My promise and I will bring you out – for so did I promise them [i.e., the Patriarchs].
According to the Chasidic Slonimer Rebbe, a 20th century Jerusalemite, God’s expression of care changes with the needs of the time:
When God shifts from the ancient El Shaddai to God’s real name, YHVH, meaning, I will be what I will be, the relationship becomes more intimate. Since the older name’s meaning is obscure, midrash takes the liberty to sermonize two components in shedai—sheh and dai, together meaning “it’s enough”—the Patriarchs got just enough of God that they needed. (Netivot Shalom on Ex. 6 translated by Reuven Greenvald)
Just like Moses and the Israelites, an individual’s relationship with the divine changes over the course of one’s life. In The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p. 353, there is a powerful poem by the contemporary Israeli poet, Rivka Miriam. Responding to the opening of our parashah, Rivka Miriam describes her own evolving relationship with God through each twist and turn of her life—from being born to growing up, from marriage to divorce, from feeling support to feeling abandoned—calling God by a different name each time—names so personal she doesn’t share them:
I spread out God’s names in front of me
on the floor of my chilly room.
The name by which I called him when his spirit
breathed in me.
And the name by which I called him when
I was a young girl …
The name by which I called him so that he
would remember me. And the name so
that he would refrain from remembering.
In the heat of the day I will prostrate myself
on the floor of my chilly room.
Last week and this week, Moses is formally introduced to God. As Rabbi Greenvald notes above, it seems to be a two-part conversation, split between the parshiyot. In the conversation, God reveals God's name and gives Moses his life's task: to go down to Egypt, free the Israelites from bondage, and lead them to the Promised Land. In Sh’mot (Ex. 3:11) Moses asks God, “Who am I?” (Mi anochi?) Just as Moses was getting to know God, Moses was still in the process of becoming known to himself.
Va-eira begins, “God spoke to Moses and said to him, ‘I am the Eternal. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by my name, YHVH’” (Ex. 6:2-3). God explains to Moses how this moment of revelation is different from earlier interactions with the Patriarchs. None of them would ever know God face-to-face, panim-el-panim; the Patriarchs experienced God, spoke to God, argued and engaged with God, but none of them received the full essence of God, God’s actual name.
In Sh’mot, Moses asks, mi anochi? And in Va-eira, God answers, telling him he is the first to hear God’s name, he is a brother of Aaron, a descendent of Levi. God builds Moses up -- despite Moses’ protests. God convinces Moses he is worthy, he is strong, he is the right person to lead the Israelites.
Perhaps this two-part conversation spanning two weeks, two parshiyot, shows a frustrated God admonishing Moses to just trust God and do the job. Or perhaps it demonstrates that learning who you are takes time. It takes time for Moses to understand who he really is and to believe that it is truly his role, his responsibility, and his honor to lead the people out of slavery toward the Promised Land.
We all face the challenge of learning who we are: Learning how to live with ourselves, learning how to live in the world and live with other people. We all stumble through this world in the ever-challenging quest for true self-awareness. And it is never a quick or easy process. The story of Moses mirrors our own experiences. The rest of the Torah is filled with stories of Moses' life and experiences. It takes chapters, even books, to tell the whole story. This is not unlike our own lives. We are never fully revealed in one moment, one verse of our lives. It takes time, chapters and chapters, to tell the stories of our lives, and to learn our true purposes on this earth.
Moses is lucky. God fully reveals God’s self to Moses and tells him, “This is what you will do with your life. This is why you are here on this earth.” It is not the same for us. We have to find our paths without the booming voice, the wondrous sight of God that so moved Moses he had to hide his face. No, we have to figure it all out with only the guidance of the still small voice that resides within us.
Va-eira, Exodus 6:2−9:35
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 420−448; Revised Edition, pp. 379–400
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 331–354
Haftarah, Ezekiel 28:25–29:21
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 696−99; Revised Edition, pp. 401−04