Va'era (Weekly Torah)

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God is Breaking Through (5777/2017)

I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai [Almighty God], but I did not make Myself known to them by My name YHWH [Ineffable Being] (Exodus 6:3).

Clearly we cannot take this verse literally. God certainly does announce the name YHWH to Moses’ ancestors, saying directly to Abraham, “I am YHWH” (Genesis 15:7).

Our medieval commentators believe the words present a theological guideline. We cannot know the Godhead directly, they teach, but only by means of particular manifestations of the divine — particular to time, place, person and situation. Abraham and Sarah saw Almighty God; Moses, half a millennium and a whole cultural milieu away, saw Ineffable Being.

But the specific God-experiences here seem wrongly attributed, backwards in fact. Abraham and Sarah, we are told in Genesis, experienced the subtle divine presence in everything. Daily, they walked and talked with God. But the demoralized, cynical generation of Moses, Miriam and Aaron was awed only by miraculous displays of divine power. Shouldn’t Torah say Abraham and Sarah experienced Ineffable God and Moses experienced God Almighty?

Yes — if Torah meant to describe its heroes’ natural spirituality. Instead, it speaks of what was “made known” to them. It hints at what we call “numinous experience” — divine energy breaking through a veil of familiarity. Yes, each character had a natural spirituality, a habitual sense of being in the world. And each character’s complacency was disrupted. Abraham and Sarah came to believe in impossible military victories, miraculous pregnancies, and synchronistic meetings. Moses’ generation found a steadier faith in everyday moral and ritual practice.

Numinous breakthroughs introduce new possibilities, re-categorizing familiar spirituality as only a starting point. So here is an urgent call for your week: Stay Alert. What will break through into your spirituality? Interfaith work? Social justice? Political activism? Even if you, like Moses, are reluctant…Stay alert!

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What is a Name of God? (5774/2014)

I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make known to them my name YHVH (Shemot/Exodus 6:3).

“And why not?” Rashi asks. He quotes a midrashic answer: “Because they didn’t ask.”

What is a “name of God”? Is it something that, when you invoke it, brings an instant sense of God’s presence? Does it have to be a word? Sitting perfectly still among a herd of animals who welcome your stillness: could that be a name of God?

How does one seek a “name of God”? Does one learn from others about a time-honoured value, such as “truth” or “love”? And then diligently practice it, even when challenged? And watch the equanimity and joy gradually grow?

When does one actually know a “name of God”? When one can invoke it and feel immediately called to an inner posture? When one welcomes, without fear, a surprise gift of mystical consciousness? When one models high ethical behaviour, teaching others simply by living?

Moshe seeks something, and thus knows something, that his ancestors did not. What is that something? Have you discovered facets of spirituality beyond what your teachers taught? Postures of inner peace, social activism, or mystical receptivity? If so, what do you plan to do with your discoveries? Tell us, as poet Mary Oliver says, “What do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

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Absolute Evil (2012/5773)

Mass shooters, the criminally insane, corporations, politicians and others are sometimes labeled in public discourse as examples of  “absolute evil.” In Parshat Va’era and the Exodus story, the development of Pharaoh’s character raises questions about the irredeemability of an evil person.

Pharaoh is sometimes painted as the archetype of the rasha, an absolutely evil person. Apparently, he cannot be moved by seeing suffering, or by rational argument, peer pressure, or knowledge of God. Five times the Torah says that Pharaoh hardens his own heart. After that, Torah says five times that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. Rambam says this means that Pharaoh makes his own heart so unreachable that coldness becomes a habit. Hardness is now Pharaoh’s way of being, as natural as the universe God made.

But if we look closely at the text, perhaps Pharaoh does not seem irredeemable. Instead, he is what the classic Hassidic work Tanya calls rasha v’tov lo — a wicked person with a little bit of good that repeatedly gets subordinated to wickedness. Pharaoh’s good shows up in his periodic experience of remorse. Each time he sees that his punishment of the slaves also punishes him, he tries to set them free. But the remorse is short-lived; each time, the coldness prevails, and Pharaoh recalls the slaves to their bondage.

Is Pharaoh absolutely evil? Or does his heart hold a hint of good that could, possibly, be cultivated if he were in different circumstances? Could his self-love be channeled into love of others? What is the case for others who are called by our media “absolutely evil”? Are they, as Rambam suggests, hardened beyond change? Or are they, as many contemporary psychologists suggest, in need of the right life circumstances and community of care? Is there one answer for everyone? Are these simple empirical questions, or does faith in human goodness change the outcome?

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Compassion Will Redeem You (5772/2012)

As Parshat Va’era opens, Moshe has a crisis of faith in his leadership. He had spoken to the Israelites, addressed Pharaoh – did everything God asked – and the result was more oppression.  So he complains to God.

God responds by revealing an intimate secret to Moshe: God’s true name. The response is woven into seven sentences. In those seven sentences, God says “I am YHVH” five times. Kabbalistic thought explains the depth of the response: to speak of God’s name is to speak of the way God manifests in the world.

A clue to God’s message is found in Parshat Kedoshim, specifically Leviticus chapter 19. Amid all the teachings about compassionate respectful behavior set out in that chapter, God says “I am YHVH” sixteen times.

This week, I take my cue in interpreting the meaning of “I am YHVH” from Karen Armstrong’s book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. Armstrong writes that human beings are neurologically wired for both aggressive self-interest and compassionate awareness. Although aggressive self-interest may be our more primitive default setting, all the world’s major religions have taught that compassion can and must be cultivated if human society is to stand.

Torah teaches that God’s true name is intertwined with compassionate awareness. In this way, Judaism joins other traditions in identifying compassion with personal awareness of the presence of God.

Perhaps in Parshat Va’era, God is telling Moshe, “Yes, Pharaoh controls Egypt with aggressive self-interest. But my true nature – compassion -– is stronger. And in the end, compassion will redeem you.”

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Crocodile of Hope (5771/2011)

When Moses and Aaron approach Pharaoh to ask for freedom for the Israelite slaves, they offer a miraculous sign. Aaron throws down his staff and it becomes a tannin – some kind of sea dragon. Pharaoh’s magicians throw down their staffs, which also become taninim. Then Aharon’s “staff” swallows all the other “staffs.”

Of all the magical creatures in the world, why did the staffs become taninim? The prophet Ezekiel gives a three-layer answer in an oracle.

“God says, “I’m higher than you, Pharaoh, tannin of the Nile, who says, ‘I created the Nile and it belongs to me!'” (Ezekiel 29:3)

Ancient Egyptian myths teach that the crocodile god Sobek created and rules the Nile River. Pharaoh identifies with Sobek. Believing himself sole creator and ruler of his environment — Egypt’s economy – he is free to ignore human suffering. God says, “You who identify with the tannin, repent! Because, like the ancient giant taninim, you too can become extinct.”

According to Midrash, the battle of the taninim in Pharaoh’s court is a dramatic morality play. But the play is not intended for Pharaoh, who won’t repent no matter what he sees. The play is intended for Moses, to teach him that change is possible. Moses should dare to hope, persevere, ignore social convention, gather his strength and take courage.

A message for us: When we accomplish something unexpected, unusual, or amazing, no matter how small, we should allow ourselves to be inspired with courage and hope.

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Developing a Good Heart (5770/2010)

Torah teaches: After each of the first five plagues, Par’oh does something to his own heart that makes him not want to allow the Israelites to leave Egypt.  Sometimes he makes it chazak, strong, and sometimes he makes it kaved, heavy. As readers, we should not be surprised to infer that Par’oh considers a strong, hard heart an important kingly quality.

Torah also teaches: After each of the last five plagues, God makes Par’oh’s heart chazak, strong, and kaved, heavy. This is surprising! We cannot imagine that the God who responds to the pained cries of the Israelites would make a person immune to the suffering of others. How, then, should we understand this teaching?

Rambam teaches: a person becomes ethical by developing good habits through education, right action, and self-reflection. Conversely, a person becomes unethical by developing poor habits of thought, feeling, and action. After a certain point, repentance is only a theoretical possibility. During the story of the first five plagues, Torah shows us how Par’oh develops poor habits of feeling. During the story of the final five, Torah lets us know that Par’oh’s reactions are out of his control.  He is now simply subject to the scientific laws of human behaviour, acting out the habits he has developed.

Please become aware of tikkun olam opportunities and take the opportunity to develop habits of compassion!

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Names of God (5769/2009)

The book of Shemot (names) begins with a list of names of the Israelites who settled in Egypt. As the book unfolds, however, it turns into a book about the names of God.

In Chapter 3, as Moshe stands at the burning bush, we learn that God wants to be called “I will be that which I will be.”

In Chapter 6, as God is giving Moshe a pep talk, we learn that God appeared to Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov under the name “El Shaddai” but did not make known to them the ineffable name “YHWH.”

In Chapter 20 God makes the ineffable name known to all the Israelites at Mount Sinai with the words “I am YHWH your God, who brought you out of the land of Mitzrayim from the house of slavery.”

In Chapter 34, after the incident of the golden calf, we learn more about the name YHWH, as the text says “YHWH is a God who is merciful, gracious, slow to anger, and filled with love and truth.”

How should we, as readers, think about this thread about the names of God?  At the very least, we can think about how each name might speak to us – or not speak to us.  These names seem to express infinity, flexibility, historical diversity, justice, equality, love, and comfort.  We can also think about how the progression from one name to another speaks to us.  We can ask why, in the context of the Exodus story, does Moshe need to know these names.  We can ask why the Israelites need to know.  And we can ask what we, as participating readers, interpreters, and heirs to the story, might learn from the names.

Image: Sunset, Ramon Crater, Israel. Photo by Laura Duhan Kaplan

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