D’var Torah – Parshat VaEra
3 Sh’vat 5784 – January 13, 2024
Rabbi Micah Friedman
Introduction to the Torah Reading
We read today from the 2nd parsha of the book of V’Eleh Sh’mot B’nei Yisrael – SHemot – Exodus. It is our own parsha, that the infamous 10 plagues which G-d brought upon Mitzrayim begin. We will read the recounting of the first 3 of these plagues: Blood, Frogs, and Lice.
This sacred saga is inherently entertaining – with a magic vs. miracle showdown between Aaron the Hebrew Slave and the royal magicians of the Egyptian Empire. Yet, without having in mind the context that comes right before this is in the flow of the Torah, any understanding we have of the parsha we will read would be lacking.
So, a quick review – recently seen in sefer Shemot. Towards the end of the first parsha of the book, which shares the name Shemot, Moshe and Aharon approach the Pharaoh for the first time to say: let my people go!
Of course, the Pharaoh does not listen and practically scoffs at their demands – hard-heartedly just as G-d had foretold to Moshe. The King – or Melekh Mitzrayim – when told that YHVH says to free the Hebrews – response “Who is YHVH? I do not know YHVH? And while we know that this is only the first of many more such conversations between Moshe and Pharaoh, Moshe seems to feel devastated – deeply disappointing and pessimistic.
Not only does Pharaoh not free the people, but he makes the word demands of the Israelites impossible by not providing them with the straw needed to make bricks. The people, and the Hebrew taskmasters lash out at Moshe – reasonably – perhaps – these folks have a hard time believing that they will be freed from slavery and feel animosity and frustration with someone who is making their lives harder.
Immediately after this, in the final section of parshat Shemot, Moshe asks G-d pointedly “Why are you causing so much harm to this people? Why did you send me? Since I went to Pharaoh, he has only treated the people more harshly and you have not saved them people as you promised!
It is in response to this objection – this critique – this kvetching – this questioning – that G-d reveals the name of Hashem to Moshe – that G-d discloses G-d’s Proper Name: YHVH.
From this appearance of G-d with the mysterious name YHVH, Moshe hears a voice which says says, “go to pharoah” – again guiding Moshe and attempting to foster his faith in the promise of geulah – of redemption.
We pick up in our reading from the moment when Moshe followed this instruction and went to speak Pharoah.
Introduction to the the Haftarah Reading
In the Haftarah which begins with the end of Ezekiel chapter 28, a prophet again recounts a promise of redemption from YHVH – the G-d of Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, and Moshe.
Strikingly, Ezekiel repeats a phrase that we read multiple times this morning and can be found many more times through parshat VaEra.
וְיָֽדְעוּ֙ כׇּל־יֹשְׁבֵ֣י מִצְרַ֔יִם כִּ֖י אֲנִ֣י יהEzekiel 29:6
It seems that one of the goals of the miraculous redemption of Israel – of the Jewish people – is so that the inhabitants of Egypt and their emperor realize that YHVH is YHVH. G-d wants to be known by all – and demands of unjust empires and governments to recognize that their power is actually subject to G-d’s will.
Whether or not the Egyptians and Pharoah who lived through the biblical period did come to “know G-d”, this phrase by which G-d makes G-d’self known Ani YHVH can be found throughout much of the rest of the 4 books of Torah to come – and in the prophets like Ezekiel.
When we encounter a verse, like Leviticus 19:18 where we read “Love your neighbor as yourself, Ani YHVH – I am the Lord – we can identify a call from Existence – Havayah – to our hearts to come to know Existence as our G-d through listening to this voice – this voice which says: Love your neighbor as yourself, Ani YHVH, and so much more.
So, we will try to hear the voice of the Eternal One through the reading of the prophetic words of Yehezkel as Haftarah.
In this book of names which is the book of redemption there is one name which I would argue is the most important and vital to the entire narrative – one name upon which all the rest of the sefer rests – one name, which in a way, the entire book of Shemot is an attempt to reveal to all of humanity – and especially to the children of Israel – our people of G-d strugglers.
The name YHVH.
Our tradition is somewhat obsessed with the name of G-d.
- The amount of evidence I could bring to illustrate this point could keep us here until the stars emerge and mark the end of Shabbat.
For now, I will simply make reference to two prayers which are included in every one of our prayer services that invoke the name of G-d as reflective of our highest aspirations for a redeemed world.
- Kaddish – Y’hei Sh’meih Raba
- Aleinu – Adoshem Echad U’Shmo Echad
What is the big deal with this name?
- In what way is the name of G-d not yet One in the world such that this becomes something we pray for?
Today, I want to suggest that the name of G-d – the very same name which we are taught to pronounce 100 times a day as we make 100 brakhot – is meant to be a constant puzzle – a one-word Koan of sorts – four letters combined in an unpronounceable way through which we can refer and speak to the ONE most-powerful force in the universe who created all, sustains all, and provides the essence of life – ONE whose Glorious Presence fills our world and yet is not of this world. ONE about whom humanity has spoken and written so many words – yet falls short of comprehensively describing with words.
I am suggesting that the meaning of the name of G-d – the Divine – is intentionally elusive – productively so in a way that gestures invitingly towards our own imagination – and our own avodah ruchanit – spiritual effort to come to know this baffling ONE in some sense.
Despite how elusive the comprehension of G-d’s name may be in general and the true nature of G-d certainly is, we do see rather clearly, in the beginning of our Parsha, that the G-d who self-discloses as YHVH – was not known to Abraham Isaac and Jacob.
We find in Exodus 6:3, the second verse of parshat Vaera:
וָאֵרָ֗א אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֛ם אֶל־יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֖ב בְּאֵ֣ל שַׁדָּ֑י וּשְׁמִ֣י יה לֹ֥א נוֹדַ֖עְתִּי לָהֶֽם׃Exodus 6:3
I appeared to Avraham, to Yitzhak, and to Yaakov by the name of El-Shaddai but by my name YHVH I was not known to them.
G-d was not made known to Abraham Isaac and Jacob by YHVH
This verse could be a groundbreaking revelation, but there is a major apparent contradiction.
The name YHVH appears through Bereishit!
Almost all of our matriarchs and patriarchs are described explicitly as calling out in the name of G-d!
In light of this glaring apparent contradiction, it seems there is a rare consensus among the classical commentators that this verse does not mean that Avraham and Sarah did know pronounce the name of G-d when speaking to YHVH. Rather, it teaches us that the true nature of the name – or the deeper meaning of the name – was not the way that they knew G-d.
“I was not made known to them by my name YHVH”
They “knew” my name – but they didn’t really “know” my name.
- Modern Hebrew can help us to understand the difference: להכיר – לדעת.
- Like Spanish, Saber and Conocer.
They knew the name, but did know G-d by the name.
- They did not investigate – or ask the difficult questions of G-d which Moshe immediately did
- They saw G-d by visions at night and not face-to-face as Moshe did
So, then, the question becomes: what is added to our understanding of G-d by using the name YHVH? Or, perhaps, what did Moshe come to know about G-d that was different and more fundamental than the patriarchs and matriarchs? Or, perhaps better still, how can we appreciate the name YHVH in a way that enables us to encounter Havayah in the tradition of Moshe?
What does Shem Havayah innovate in our experience of the Divine?
- Rashi: Keeping Promises of Redemption
- Ramban and Ibn Ezra: Miraculous intervention to establish morality in harmony with nature
- Middat ha Rachamim – the manifestation of G-d’s infinite love in the redeeming the oppressed
- All encompassing demands on us – exile, circumcision, the demand to address a king on behalf of the people of Israel
- Existence: Impermanence and connection across time
- Human Breath
The Name of G-d encompasses all of these qualities and characteristics and so many more.
In fact, the name encompassess all qualities – the good and the bad.
Paradoxically, Adonai is a G-d who keeps ancient promises and sets in motion the miracles through which downtrodden and oppressed people are able to live dignified lives of sacred purpose and Adonai is a G-d who refuses to even be named.
I will be what I will be – Ehyeh asher Ehyeh
The same root of Havayah – Existence – that underlies the tetragrammaton – the 4 letter name of G-d about which I have been speaking.
In addition to offering a commanding call to pursue liberation, G-d is also simply “I will be” – or rather, the “I” that will be forever
The I that will exist millions of years from now as the I does now – the One constant amidst the constant changing of the world.
And – at the same time – the name Hashem is the ultimate expression of love – midat harachamim – the love of a mother who gives life and forgives even the worst offenses.
I hope that you – like me – are a little confused – or rather – more than a little puzzled by this odd, holy name of G-d which our ancestors have passed down since Avraham and Sarah – even without coming close to completely understanding what it means.
I also hope that you – like me – feel curious to discover more of what this name of G-d might mean to us – as we journey through this little-thing called life and continue to retell the story of the redemption of our ancestors from Egypt by YHVH and to pray for a time when we will again be redeemed from all forms of oppression, violence, hatred and hardship.
May this day come soon and in our days.
And if we should not merit to witness a complete redemption, may we all journey together in loving relationship with each other and with Hashem for many long years.