On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah – Va-eira: What Do We Really Think About God?`

In the opening lines of this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Va-eira of the Book of Exodus, Moses meets God for the first time. Rabbi Rick Jacobs points out the specific name God uses, and discusses the many different ways God is named and described throughout the Torah and other texts, and what hints they give us to understand the elusive nature of God.

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[URJ Intro:] Welcome back to "On the Other Hand," a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President for the Union for Reform Judaism, teaches us a little bit about the Torah portion for the week in about 10 minutes or less. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parashat Va-eira, and he asks us what we really think about God?

[Rabbi Rick:] This week, we focus our attention on Parashat Va-eira, the second parasha in the Book of Exodus. And we know the larger narrative. Well, it is the beginning of the confrontation with Moses and Pharaoh to let the Jewish people leave Egypt. Amazingly at the beginning, we have the opening words where it says, "God spoke to Moses and said to him I am Adonai, I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai. But I did not make myself known to them by my Name - Adonai" -- Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey.

So here we have something that I think has occurred to anyone who's ever been to a Jewish worship service, and that is that we've got many names for God. Some people think that Bedouins have lots of names for sand, and Eskimos have lots of names for snow. Perhaps it is the case that the Jewish people have many different names for God, and that reflects a quest to understand and to think that the words may capture different pieces of the, in some ways, elusive essence of who God is. Amazingly, the opening says that for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, they knew God by one name -- El Shaddai. And it's also the case that many of us know that the first blessing of the T’filah the Amidah, the standing prayer, one of the central prayers of the Jewish liturgy, talks about the God of our ancestors. And it says Elohei Avraham, Elohei Yitzhak, v'Elohei Ya'akov. The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now many people have seen that and said, "Well, wouldn't it have been a little bit more economical use of language to say 'v'Elohei Avraham, Yitzhak, v'Yaakov'-- the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?" But the Hasidic commentators get inside that and say, "Well you know what? Turns out that each of the Patriarchs had their own relationship, their own understanding, their own way of relating to God. So it's not generic. They didn't all think and relate to God in the same way, just as we don't."

We also know that thankfully, the Reform movement was head of the liturgical innovation to include the names of the Matriarchs. I was with a wonderful Orthodox rabbinical colleague the other day who came up to me and said, "Hey Rick, I know that the Reform movement adds the names of the Matriarchs, but why don't you add the names of Zilpah and Bilha? They were also, you know, they were mothers of the Twelve Tribes, and they get left out."

I said, "Well it's a great suggestion. I'm sure I know that we've had debates about it, but," I said, "I have to be curious are you thinking about including all of the names of the Matriarchs in Orthodox prayer?"

He said, "Well, actually, we're not. We're not actually thinking about that but I just thought of consistency."

So I said, "I tell you what, we're going to think more about it. It's a great suggestion. I would love maybe you'd [also] think more about including them, because I think that would be very meaningful to many people within the Orthodox world."

But let's think for a moment if we could about the names we use for God. El Shaddai, by the way, is something that our various commentators dig into. The Sfat Emet, the great 19th century Hasidic commentator said, "She-dai -- that there is enough." You know the song from Passover, "Dayenu"? So he said that the name El Shaddai means that there is enough of godliness for each creature, that somehow God is placed inside of each and every living thing, some essential divine nature. It's a beautiful interpretation.

Others have seen the word Shaddaim, which relates obviously, shaddai means breast, and perhaps El Shaddai is a almost a feminist theological image that God is the nurturing mother, God is the one who really began the relationship with Abraham and Sara, and Isaac and Rebecca, which is a beautiful way maybe to expand some of the language we use for God. I know that in recent years sometimes, we have, as a Reform movement been very, very diligent about trying to find non-gendered language to talk about God. I know some people say, "Isn't that a kind of theological correctness, Rabbi?" But I think actually it's really a deeper quest to get beyond the limiting ways in which words define God as male or female, God as gendered. Is God beyond those kinds of categories? So I think the quest to find language that really captures the deeper, elusive essence of God is always a obsession within Jewish spirituality.

I think of some of the modern ways in which we think about God, you know, to use different symbols -- is God more like a clock, you know the Deist understanding of sort of creating the world and letting it run according to its laws? Is God more of a puppeteer, adjusting and helping us and everyone and everything to do the right things? Is God more like light, this source of illumination that helps us understand and live in the world? In a negative sense, is God a giant vending machine that we ask for things? You know, we need this, and I want that. There are all these different ways to understand. But the opening of the parasha also tells us that the Israelites were diminished in spirit, they were kotzer ruach, they were broken and unable to really take in the deeper spirituality because of the hard labor, because of the slavery.

What's also amazing in Chapter 6, verse 5, God says, "I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites, because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage." You know is God an empathetic almost being, where God's like a, you know, a loving protector or parent ruler hearing the groaning. It's so responsive, it's so personal. And for many of us it's very reassuring [that] that [is] the way God is experienced in our lives. I remember a wonderful article that Barbara Schumann wrote in Reform Judaism Magazine, it goes back a couple of years. Barbara [is] just one of our most inspired and learned and lay leaders. The title of the piece is called "The God I Don't Believe In Showed Up Today." And in it, she so thoughtfully gets that, you know, the experience that many of us have about the God I don't believe in -- you know, do I believe when I pray for healing and services that God is going to hear my prayer and somehow help the person I'm praying for? Is that the way God operates in the universe? And so she writes, one day, you really find yourself longing for that God and particularly because [in her case] her father-in-law and mother-in-law were in health crises. And here she finds herself crying out to a God she does not believe in. She says, "I ask this God -- Open my lips. Grant me the ability to pray, to feel your presence to know that ultimately all is in your hands. Be with us in our hour of darkness hold us in your hand. Grant me courage and faith -- above all, faith in the One I don't believe in." Some of you might hear that and say, well, it feels like a lot of contortions; either you believe or you don't believe. But to be honest, I think all of us who live lives of spiritual depth are always, always asking those questions, searching, testing, and sometimes trying new ways on to understand God.

There is in the various names of God Elohim and Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey -- Adonai, as we pronounce Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey. If we think and go back to the traditional language, the word Elohim is often used as din, or justice, and Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey, Adonai as mercy, or rahamim. Rabbi Nancy Flam has one of the most inspired ways to reframe some of the challenges many of us find theologically [when] praying for people who are ill and believing that God is responsive in a direct way. Remember the parasha, the people are suffering and they are crying out to God, crying out in the hopes that God will hear their moaning, hear their cries. And it turns out that they are heard. But how is it that difficult things happen, that there is so much suffering and pain? And where is God's ability to help? Where is God's compassion? And Rabbi Flam, who I had the privilege of working and now is a remarkable teacher, part of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. And Rabbi Flam tells us that, you know, perhaps it's just a way for us to understand that there are certain limitations. That God made a world that has limited time for each of us on the planet. That's not a judgment -- that we somehow did something wrong, because we get ill, or if we actually have a death in our family -- that's not necessarily a judgment or a punishment -- but it's an agonizing reality of a world with limits. She says physical bodies are limited, they are created with a finite capacity for life and death. They are vulnerable to disease, injury, and decay. We are created, and without exception, pass away. This is part of God's holy design. And that may in fact be part of God's holy design. Can we through our prayer, through our longing, through our lives, can we somehow affect the length or the quality? Well for sure the quality -- and maybe even at times the length by the way in which we conduct ourselves.

I have to also say there's kind of a humorous underbelly to this. I don't know if anybody else saw and loved the Frisco Kid, this 1979 film with Gene Wilder, where he plays this young rabbi sent from Poland to San Francisco. He's making his way across the United States and he is taken captive by Native Americans, who want to know why he's, you know, praying to this small handwritten scroll he calls the Torah. And finally the chief asked him if he could pray for rain. Would our God respond? The chief says, "Yes or no. Can your god make rain?" "Yes," Avram replies, "but, you know -- he doesn't." "No?" The chief demands to know why not. Avram replies, "He doesn't make rain, He gives us strength when we're suffering, He gives us compassion when we're all feeling hatred. He gives us courage when we're searching around blindly like little mice in the darkness. But He does not make rain." Suddenly in the movie -- if you remember that moment, there's thunder and lightning, followed by a torrential downpour. Avram continues. "Of course sometimes, just like that, God will change God's mind." A humorous take on the same subject, but there's truth in that. Can we in fact find a way -- whether, please God, we'll not know another Egypt -- but we may be living in a kind of personal Egypt, and we all know hardship and how is it that we find strength from God? God the source of strength, God the source of holiness and light. Each of us has to find our way through prayer, through understanding and searching for a way that makes spiritual sense to us. But Va-eira opens us, I believe, to some of those new possibilities. Maybe we're like Barbara Schumann, we're really clear about the God we don't believe in, but maybe, just maybe, we can discover and experience a God that we may not be able to name. We may not be able to describe [it], but at the same time maybe that God will sustain and help us fill out each and every day with more meaning, more purpose, and more holiness.

[URJ Outro:] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes Of Torah." If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on Apple Podcasts, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah" is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.

Until next week -- l'hitraot!