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Names: Keys to Oppression and Redemption

  • Names: Keys to Oppression and Redemption

    Va-eira, Exodus 6:2−9:35
D'var Torah By: 

An important message of the Book of Exodus is lost when we use its English name. The English name highlights the main event of the book. The Hebrew name, Sh'mot , "Names," points to an essential theme that runs through the first three parashiyot : the failure to recognize a name makes the Exodus necessary, and recognizing a name becomes a precondition for the Exodus to be completed.

In last week's portion, each of Joseph's brothers is named individually. The circumstances that lead to their coming to Egypt are recounted, and their descendants are acknowledged collectively by the name "the Children of Israel." With the passing of generations, we are told of a significant change: "A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph [ asher lo yada et Yosef] . . ." (Exodus 1:8). The failure to know Joseph serves as the articulated reason for the Egyptians' shrewd and ruthless treatment of the Jews, oppressing them and imposing forced labor upon them (Exodus 1:9?14). Neither Joseph, nor his brothers, nor any of their descendants had remained individuals. They had become nameless members of a group to which the Egyptians could ascribe nefarious motives and that they then created justifiable reasons to enslave.

This week's parashah continues the theme of what happens when a name is not recognized and individuality is not honored. In this case, God's name, Adonai , is the focus. God addresses Moses with the words, "I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but My name , Adonai,lo nodati lahem " (Exodus 6:3). The commentators struggle with this Hebrew phrase; grammatically it is problematic. It does not mean "I did not make that name known to them"; the name Adonai appears in the narratives about God's interactions with all three patriarchs. As Rashi and others explain, the patriarchs may have known the name Adonai,but they did not relate to God as such. Their primary relationship was with El Shaddai.

So, it might seem that the redemption of the Children of Israel is predicated upon their coming to know God as Adonai, moving beyond the relationships between their ancestors and God and establishing a relationship of their own with God. In this way, the Children of Israel will be redeemed when they properly recognize God as Adonai.

However, when laying out the plan for Moses and Aaron, God's concluding words are, "When Pharaoh does not heed you, I will lay My hand upon Egypt and deliver My ranks, My people the Israelites, from the land of Egypt with extraordinary chastisements. And the Egyptians shall know that I am Adonai , when I stretch out My hand over Egypt and bring out the Israelites from their midst" (Exodus 7:4?5). Here we see that redemption requires that even the enemies of the Children of Israel recognize Adonai.

When Aaron's defeat of Pharaoh's magicians does not convince Pharaoh to let the Children of Israel worship God in the wilderness (Exodus 7:15), God instructs Moses to threaten the first plague. "And say to him, ‘ Adonai, God of the Hebrews, sent me to you to say, "Let My people go that they may worship Me in the wilderness." But you have paid no heed until now. Thus says Adonai , " By this you shall know that I am Adonai ." See, I shall strike the water in the Nile with the rod that is in my hand, and it will be turned into blood'"(Exodus 7:16?17).

It appears that God's desire has been fulfilled, when in response to the second plague Pharaoh summons Moses and Aaron and says, "Plead with Adonai to remove the frogs from me and my people, and I will let the people go to sacrifice to Adonai " (Exodus 8:4). Pharaoh explicitly uses the name Adonai, acknowledging that Moses can communicate with Adonai and that Adonai has the power to remove the frogs. Rather than expressing gratitude to Pharaoh for complying with the initial demand, and perhaps even the second, God changes the stakes. "And [Moses] said, ‘As you say [that is, I will ask God to fulfill your request]— that you may know that there is none like Adonai our God '" (Exodus 8:6). Now Pharaoh must acknowledge God's uniqueness, lest Adonai be considered merely one of the many gods that foreigners revere. And later, when Pharaoh agrees to let the people leave to worship Adonai on condition that Moses plead to Adonai that the hail cease, Moses retorts, ". . . The hail will fall no more, so that you may know that the earth is Adonai 's. But I know that you and your courtiers do not yet fear Adonai Elohim" (Exodus 9:29?30). A while later, for their failure to acknowledge Adonai for more than a moment, God drowns the Egyptians in the Sea of Reeds.

By juxtaposing the story of Joseph with this story of Adonai , the biblical writers underscore the dangers inherent in not being known by name, not being acknowledged as unique beings. The Egyptians' failure to know the names of individuals among the Children of Israel enables them to perceive the Israelites as an anonymous mass that they can devalue, subjugate, and oppress. Adonai is faced with a similar situation. Moses and the Children of Israel have heard of Adonai and attempt to remain true to the God of their ancestors. But to the Egyptians, to Pharaoh, Adonai is merely one among many gods. In this context, Adonai is not unique; Adonai is only worthy of the same respect as the many other gods that exist. With signs and wonders, Adonai displays a unique range of capacities, far exceeding those of any single god in a polytheistic scheme. But the Egyptians' failure to know and acknowledge Adonai 's uniqueness makes it possible for Pharaoh to repeatedly rescind his offers to let the Children of Israel leave. Adonaiis thus devalued and rendered less significant.

The refusal to acknowledge one's name, one's individuality, is but the first step in a process that allows for devaluation, prejudice, and oppression to develop and thrive, a process as old as the first chapters of Exodus and as fresh as this week's front page news.

Rabbi Nancy H. Wiener , D.Min., is clinical director of the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Center for Pastoral Counseling and adjunct professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. She is also the rabbi of the Pound Ridge Jewish Community, a Reform chavurah , in Pound Ridge, New York.

What's in a Name?
Davar Acher By: 
Steven Kushner

The sacred Name, the four-letter name of God ( yod-hei-vav-hei , from the verb "to be," meaning "Existence"), has such power in its profound simplicity that we are forbidden to even pronounce it. Instead we say Adonai . The Rambam (Moses Maimonides) referred to this name of God as "ineffable." Beyond unutterable, it is incomprehensible. Could God be defined by a name? Can that which transcends all intellect be captured through nomenclature? To wit, in last week's parashah , when Moses asks for God's name, God replies, "Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh" (the root of Ehyehbeing the same as the four-letter name of God): "I will be what I will be" (Genesis 3:13-14). Not much help, really. Because we want to know God, yet if you can name God, you can—were it possible—limit God. And therein lies our problem, but our blessing as well.

In our inexhaustible desire to possess God, to know God, to name God, Torah comes to teach us that we will fail. God cannot truly be named. Yet at the same time, precisely because the nature of the Sacred One exceeds our comprehension, we are each left with individual pathways to the Eternal, unique and even private doorways to Ein Sof, "The Limitless One."

So in ParashatVa-eira —which is God's formal introduction to the Jewish people—Torah starts out loud and clear: God can be known and perceived in different ways. To Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel, God was known as El Shaddai,"God-Almighty," perhaps an entry-level anthropomorphized god, a warrior-god, a god to whom a child might relate. But in the maturation of the Jewish people, particularly after having traversed the theologically forging experience of Egyptian oppression, God presents the Holy in a profoundly more abstract (and thus adaptable) way. To the generation of the Exodus—and until further notice—God is simply to be known as the One Who Is. What more do you really need to know?"

Rabbi Steven Kushner , ordained from HUC-JIR in Cincinnati in 1977, has served Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, New Jersey, for twenty-seven years.

1/20/2007
Reference Materials: 

Va-eira , Exodus 6:2-9:35
The Torah: A Modern Commentary , pp. 420-?448 ; Revised Edition, pp. 379 –400
Haftarat Shabbat Rosh Chodesh, Isaiah 66:1-13, 23
The Torah: A Modern Commentary , pp. 1,684-1,686 ; Revised Edition, pp. 1,492-?1,494