When we meet Moses again
Last week and this week, Mos
When we meet Moses again
Last week and this week, Mos
The Torah reading for this Shabbat from the Book of Exodus tells of the Israelites’ successful flight from slavery in Egypt. As we hear the chanting of the exultant Song at the Sea recalling that triumphant escape, let us continue to draw strength from Torah in facing challenges today.
The Torah portion for Yom Rishon shel Pesach tells us that the night the Israelites prepared to leave Egypt, "was for the Eternal a night of vigil." The vigil continues, and our Festival begins with the seder to retell the story of our redemption. Our seders are usually full of singing. Even so, may we look for opportunities to sing more often. May we more regularly allow song to inspire us to have hope and faith.
In Va-eira, Moses tries to speak with the Israelites, who cannot listen due to their kotzer ruach, which can mean “shortness of breath” or “crushed spirit.” Both are results of debilitating work that prevents the Israelites from looking up to see new possibilities.
In Va-eira, we learn that the Israelites suffer from spiritual inertia. They are not the only ones. Pharaoh, too, hardened his heart during the first five plagues, after which it became difficult for him to change. We, too, can get stuck in a pattern of behavior that makes it hard to change. One small lie begets a second lie, and then a third and a fourth, until we’re no longer even sure where the truth lies.
Parashat Va-eira is all action: the first six plagues descend on Egypt, and Pharaoh responds in kind, creating the dramatic and suspenseful story that will culminate in God redeeming the Israelite slaves from Egypt. The plagues are high drama, a fast-moving blockbuster film.
Blood. Frogs. Lice. Insects. Pestilence. Boils. My skin crawls and my scalp itches just writing about this batch of creepy, crawly, infectious plagues. The six plagues in Va-eira come in two sets of three plagues each (blood, frogs and lice; insects, pestilence and boils). In each set, Pharaoh is forewarned about the first two plagues and surprised by the third.1 And after each set, he refuses to free the Israelites.
The people of Israel were not the only ones who needed a powerful reminder of God’s power and character. The memory and heritage of God’s personal connection with their ancestors had clearly dimmed in the generations of their servitude in Egypt, but the Israelites never forgot their core identity as a distinct people. Yet God’s chosen leader for the people was ignorant even of that basic tenet of the Israelite identity.
How well did our spiritual ancestors actually know God? At the beginning of our Torah portion, Va-eira, God seems to suggest the relationship wasn't quite as intimate as we would have thought.
"God spoke to Moses and said to him: "I am the Eternal [YHVH]. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name YHVH" (Exodus 6:2-3).
The patriarchs had known God by one name, but apparently, not by the name through which God will be known to Moses, to the Israelites in the later books of the Bible, or to Jews today. It's a surprising statement. The patriarchs, after all, are understood by Jewish tradition to have been particularly intimate with God. In the Amidah prayer, we invoke their names when we address God - God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob - precisely because of the strength of their relationships with God. And now, we find out that they didn't even know one of God's most important names?
If we open up the Book of Genesis, we find things a little more complicated than our verse might suggest on its surface. The name Eternal appears all over Genesis; the patriarchs are quite familiar with Eternal as a name of God. Abraham refers to God as Eternal when directly addressing God (see, for example, Genesis 15:2) and when speaking to others about God (Genesis 14:22). Sarah also uses the name Eternal when she speaks to Abraham about God (Genesis 16:2). And Isaac and Jacob use the name as well (See, for example, Genesis 26:25 and Genesis 28:16).
The encounter with God at the Burning Bush is awash with examples of Moses' fear and awe of this newly-named deity and of the tasks God demands of him. So much so that he mightily hesitates to get involved. But along with uncertainty, we perceive in Moses a willingness to understand God's many-hued and vibrant personalities, and ultimately to accept God's mission.
In Va-eira, we read the denouement of the negotiations between God and Moses, after which Moses agrees to be God's prophet. As his final attempt to evade his leadership responsibility, Moses explains to God that the Israelites would probably shun him. The Hebrew text reads: Vay'dabeir Mosheh lifnei Adonai, "Moses spoke before God," or literally, "Moses spoke to the faces of God" (Exodus 6:12). This is a somewhat unique construction of address, repeated in Tanach only one other time: when Jephthah, also in a reluctant state of mind, speaks to God after becoming the commander of the people (Judges 11:11).
Parashat Va-eira has always troubled me. The plagues, with their collective punishment caused by the sins of Pharaoh, always seemed unnecessarily cruel to the Egyptian people.
I recently visited the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta.
Parashat Va-eira is an epic and escalating battle between God and Pharaoh.
The Divine Liberator – what a fantastic image to draw our attention when reading this section of Exodus!
During my first summer at URJ’s Olin-Sang Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI) summer camp, I was a mere eleven years old.
The revelation of God’s name YHVH does lead us to think of Zelda’s poem. But what does it mean to have a name given to us by our parents, our yearnings, our fears, or our enemies?
Explore this week’s Torah portion with “Family Shabbat Table Talk” lessons, perfect for families with tweens.
The parchment inside the mezuzah contains two names of God.
In this week's parashah, God becomes known to Moses through a new name, YHVH.