Va'era 5754

 

The Torah portion read this week, Va’era -- which is the second portion of the book of Shmot -- presents a pivotal theological point in the history of the Jewish people -- and yet, all too often this point is not noticed and not taken to heart by Jews or by Torah scholars. The text begins in chapter 6, "And God spoke to Moses, saying, `I am - -; and I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob as God Almighty -- but by my name - - I made Me not known to them. And I have also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their sojourning, wherein they sojourned. And moreover, I have heard the groaning of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians keep in bondage; and I have remembered my covenant. Wherefore say unto the children of Israel: I am - - and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their burdens, and I will redeem you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgements; and I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be to you a God. And ye shall know that I am the Lord your God who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.’"

Now, you may well ask, why is this such an important passage?

Moses introduces here a concept so radically different and new that to this day it is not completely understood. What is this concept? It is monotheism taken to its core, to its completion. Moses is charged by God to speak to Pharaoh and get the Israelites out of Egypt -- but that happened at the burning bush, in the last portion. It occurred, further, that Moses asked God, at that point in the story, ‘whom shall I say sent me?’ and he was given the answer ‘Eheye asher Eheye." Here the text expands and explains the previous discussion concerning the name, and establishes a principle of faith. God tells Moses that he is relating to the children of Israel because of a covenant He made with their fathers Abraham Isaac and Jacob. ‘and I remembered My covenant.’ However, He makes it very clear that His relation with the patriarchs was quite different -- He was known to them as El Shada’y -- Lord of Hosts -- which is to say as an active interacting God, a one-on-one God who was very personal and unstructured. Now, with the entire people Israel, He shall have to be much more structured, and He will be known by the "shem hameforash" -- the explicit name -- which is the four letters 'yod,' 'he,' 'vav' and 'he,' which are known in English by the Greek name ‘tetragrammaton’ -- the four consonants. We, in Judaism, have long insisted that the tetragrammaton cannot be pronounced. The Christian world, and academe pronounced it Jehovah or Yahwe. We have claimed that it is derived from the four letters used in the verb ‘being’ (Was-is-will be -- haya-hove-yihye) while ‘they’ claimed that it was an actual name, like Moloch, Mordoch, Astarte, or Ra.

Yet, in the text of the Torah portion this week we read the message, ‘I am yod he vav he and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their burdens, and I will redeem you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgements; and I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be to you a God. And ye shall know that I am the Lord your God who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.’ God, to the Jews, has a name made up of four letters, not a "proper name" as we would call it, but a code name for verbs -- and there are four verbs that demonstrate His relationship with "dor Mitzra’yim" -- the generation of Egypt: He will ‘ bring out,’ He will ‘deliver,’ He will ‘redeem,’ and He will ‘take’ Israel to be their God. They, and all the coming generations, will ‘know that I am the Lord your God who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.’

Thus Moses established a concept of God that was revolutionary as it was simple. Not a cult of personality but a witnessing of action. Judaism’s God is not Master of the universe because he is a Super-human being but because He is "Koneh Shamayim va’aretz" - owner of heaven and earth. God demands our love not because He wishes to enslave us but because He is willing, nay insisting, on setting us free. It is knowledge that is setting us free. The knowledge of God, true knowledge, free of superstition, free of pre-conceived ideas of what we can do to gain His favor. For He is the God of action, the God of creation, the God of Truth. The truth that is not relative, not manipulated and manipulative, but the truth of nature, which is His truth, as we say in the concluding words of the third paragraph of our creed, the Shma -- 'eloheikhem emet' - The Lord is Truth. Amen ve'amen.

 

 

Vaera, 5756

 

This week's Torah portion continues the saga of Moshe Rabenu, our great emancipator Moses, in his mission to remove the Israelites from Egypt. It begins with a quick reiteration of the relationship of God to Israel. The text reads, "God also spoke to Moses and said to him: "I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as -- God Almighty, but by my name ' -- The Lord' I did not make myself known to them. I also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they resided as aliens. I have also heard the groaning of the Israelites whom the Egyptians are holding as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant. Say therefore to the Israelites, 'I am the LORD, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord.'"

You recall that last week we read that when Moses first spoke to Pharaoh, the Egyptian not only refused to release the Israelites, he actually increased their burdens. Moses became and agent of Israelite suffering. Therefore, when God again dispatches him to the king's court, "on the day when the Lord spoke to Moses in the land of Egypt, he said to him, "I am the Lord; tell Pharaoh king of Egypt all that I am speaking to you." Moses does not want to do Israel any more harm. "But Moses said in the Lord's presence, "Since I am a poor speaker, why would Pharaoh listen to me?" God has to explain to His servant the role he must play in this great saga. "The Lord said to Moses, "See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet. You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of his land. But I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and I will multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt. When Pharaoh does not listen to you, I will lay my hand upon Egypt and bring my people the Israelites, company by company, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out from among them."

Moses is God's prophet, a messenger. However, he lives in an age when none hear the voice of God, and few understand His message even when it is brought to them by a chosen singular unique person such as Moses. God suggest, for the second time (the first having been when Moses was at the Burning Bush, when Moses tried to turn down God's request to become His messenger, "What of your brother Aaron, the Levite? I know that he can speak fluently; even now he is coming out to meet you, and when he sees you his heart will be glad. You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth; and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth, and will teach you what you shall do. He indeed shall speak for you to the people; he shall serve as a mouth for you, and you shall serve as God for him."), that Moses need not be intimidated by the fact that he is not immediately accepted. The nature of man is such that Moses, because he can relate to God, becomes a god-like figure to friend (Aaron) and foe (Pharaoh) alike.

Is God showing cruelty to the Egyptians by suggesting that he will "harden Pharaoh's heart" to "multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt" to make sure that people know His glory? Not at all! It is not the nature of God to show cruelty -- it is the nature of man. It is because of Egypt's cruelty to Israel that they will now be blinded to the truth that is plainly made manifest to them. This is the nature of humanity. We can learn quite easily in our youth (because of our innocence) -- we are like a clean sheet upon which instruction can be written. If that instruction is good, God inspired, we can live a good life free of God's wrath and its consequence. If we use that clean sheet to inscribe on it evilness -- we end up living the consequence of what we have ourselves inscribed. Once the sheet is written, it can only be changed with great difficulty, if at all. A person raised in mitzvot is not very likely to stray away from the path of God -- and a wicked person is not very likely to pursue the life and preoccupation of a saint. As sergeant Joe Friday used to say, "these are the facts, just the facts, sir." So it is in this world that God has created in order and in harmony. This is why Moses has given us God's instruction, the Torah, that we may learn His ways and walk in his path, and in so doing, choose life.

 

Amen

 

 

Va'era 5757

 

This week we read in the Torah the portion Va'era, which is the second portion in the second book, the book of Shemot. Last week we read about the rearing of Moshe Rabenu and his first encounter with Egyptian persecution of the Israelites, which ended with Moshe killing the taskmaster, and making necessary his exile to the Sinai desert. We read of his encounter with Jethero's daughters, his invitation to stay with the Midianites, his marriage to Tzipora -- and his encounter with God at Mount Khorev. The portion ended with Moshe returning to Egypt to redeem the Israelites at God's command, and his initial failure to impress Pharaoh with his mission.

This week the story continues, and we read, "...And God spoke to Moses, and said to him, I am the Lord; And I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, by the name of God Almighty, but by my name The Lord was I not known to them. And I have also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their sojourning, in which they sojourned. And I have also heard the groaning of the people of Israel, whom the Egyptians keep in slavery; and I have remembered my covenant. Therefore say to the people of Israel, I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will rid you from their slavery, and I will redeem you with a outstretched arm, and with great judgments; And I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God; and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who brings you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. And I will bring you in to the land, concerning which I swore to give it to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; and I will give it to you for a heritage; I am the Lord." [Ex. 6:2-8]

It seems as if God's commission of Moshe begins anew with the above passage. It is as if God says, "O.k., Moshe, you didn't do so well the first time out -- but don't lose heart. You are still my choice to bring the Israelites out of Egypt." Moshe tries one more time to reject his commission, saying that he is "speech-handicapped" -- but God pays no attention to his disclaimer. He commands Moshe and Aaron to go about His business. There is a very profound lesson in this passage!

God has a plan for His creation. It is the "original blueprint" of creation, one might say. Yet, how do we reconcile this blueprint with Man's free will? If man has free will, and we certainly believe, even insist, that he does -- than God's blueprint can be contravened. Thus, God may have wished to see the Children of Israel leave Egypt with the first appearance of Moshe at Pharaoh's court -- but it was not to be, because Pharaoh had his own choices to make, and having lived his life contrary to God's will thus far, he certainly had the choice to continue, and it was almost predictable that he would not hearken to God's call. Human nature is established through repeated experience. 'Mitzvah goreret mitzvah,' one mitzvah draws you to another, 'va'avera goreret avera,' and a transgression draws another transgression. Pharaoh had been living with 'averot' for so long that he no longer knew that they were transgressions. What about God's blueprint? It had to be altered.

What we have to understand is that the alterations, when they happen, become part of the master plan. The world keeps progressing, by God's blueprint, toward the time of the sovereignty of God over all of his creation, in a world that lives by God's law in harmony and security. This ideal time will arrive when all mankind will recognize God's fatherhood and humanity's brotherhood. The path to this ideal is through love -- love of God, love of family, love of life in all the many ways that it is manifested. When we learn to live our lives, all of us separately and together, with integrity and self respect, as well as respect for others, we shall discover that we are working in God's blueprint, and we shall truly be at ease, be secure -- and be free!

 

Va’era 5758

 

This week we read the second portion in the second book of the Torah. Moshe Rabenu has reluctantly accepted God’s charge to go back to Egypt to release, at God’s behest, the People Israel from Egyptian Bondage. We read the beginning text, "And God spoke to Moses, and said to him, I am the Lord; And I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, by the name of God Almighty, but by my name The Lord was I not known to them. And I have also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their sojourning, in which they sojourned." [Ex. 6:2-4] Actually, the text in Hebrew says, "And Elohim spoke to Moses, and said to him, I am Yod Heh Vav Heh; And I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, by the name of El Shada’y..." Now, many scholars wish to read, or 'interpret,' this "Yod Heh Vav Heh" as an actual name, but I, and my heritage, insist that this just is not so. The "Yod Heh Vav Heh" is a code for "God of Creation" or "God of the past, the present and the future." Only last week we read that God said to Moshe, "Ehyeh asher Ehyeh" – I shall be what shall be, and you may recall the Kabalistic interpretation that involved numerology, or Gemmatria, where Ehyeh has a value of 21 and "Ehyeh asher Ehyeh" is the function 21 times 21, giving is 441. Adding the digits we get 9. So, the "value" of God’s name, which is not pronounced at all, is numerically 9. Now we are told that our God was known to Abraham Isaac and Jacob as El Shada’y." This "El Shada’y," in the Hebrew, has a numerical value of 345, and adding the digits we get 12, and adding the digits again gives us 3! So, the God of our fathers is the numerical value of 3, which is the root of 9 – which is the value of its name. Of course, the Hebrew word Emet, truth, also has the value of 441, which is reduced to 9, as mentioned last week. I would like to point out to you further, that many people refuse to recognize God by His name or title, bestowing His qualities on "nature." Interestingly, the Hebrew word for nature is Teva – Tev, Vet, A’yin. Tet is 9; Vet is 2; A’yin is 70. The sum is 81! God revealed Himself at Sinai with the word "I am [the Lord your God...]" – in the Hebrew Anokhi. Aleph is 1; Nun is 50; Khaf is 20; Yod is 10. The sum is 81! And, of course, 81 is the square of nine! So, when God revealed Himself at Sinai, or when He is revealed in nature, we still have the indication of His power, His source, His action upon the forces, the energy that makes all happen!

Now this God of all existence is squaring off with Pharaoh. In our reading, the middle of the tri-annual readings, we come upon this text, "The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, I am Yod Heh Vav Heh; speak to Pharaoh king of Egypt all that I say to you." [Ex. 6:29] So we ask, is there a special meaning to the term Pharaoh? And, of course, there is. The root is Peh Resh A’yin. From this root we get two words with opposite meanings – para means to neglect, disarrange, or plunder; and the same para means to pay a debt completely, to set a debt right. The same root letters, rearranged, give us the word araf, which means to break the neck or decapitate. Change the vowels, making the word oref, and it means neck, and in a stiff-necked person, as in Pharaoh! When we go to Gemmatria, or numerology, we find that Peh Resh A’yin (and its anagram, or course,) has a value of 350 which can be reduced to 8. Yod Heh Vav Heh has a value of 26 which is also reduced to 8. Thus we see the battle of wits between God almighty and Pharaoh as a battle for definition of which is the valid and which is the invalid "eight." There is a dichotomy in all of us, between the plundering, disarranging and neglectful part of our nature, and between the redemption of our debt of gratitude to God for our true redemption – setting us free of bondage to want, to make us in the image of Yod Heh Vav Heh, the symbol of all that was, all that is – and the hope for all that is yet to come!

 

 

 

Va’era 5759

The Torah portion read this week, Va’era – which is the second portion of the second book of the Torah, Sefer Shmot, the book of Names, or as it is called in English, Exodus — presents, in my opinion, a pivotal theological point that is totally lost in the rush to translate the book in a simple and easy-to-understand manner. I am speaking of the following passage: "And I will bring you in to the land, concerning which I swore to give it to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; venatati ota lakhem morasha, ani Adona’y – and I will give it to you for a heritage; I am the Lord." [Ex. 6:8]

Now you may ask, what is so earth-shaking about this passage? I will explain: ‘venatati ota lakhem’ is exactly ‘and I will give it to you.’ ‘Ani adona’y’ is exactly ‘I am the Lord.’ However, ‘morasha’ is not exactly ‘a heritage’ — and this is where the lesson is lost.

The word ‘morasha’ appears only twice in the entire Torah, and only once more in the entire Tanakh. The other passages where the word appears are also not translated exactly to fit the word, for that is the nature of a word that is unique and particular. Here are the two other texts: "Torah tziva lanu Moshe morasha kehilat Ya’akov – Moses commanded us a Torah, the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob." [Deu. 33:4] Note that in this instance the word is translated ‘inheritance.’ "Therefore prophesy and say, Thus says the Lord God: Because they have made you desolate, and swallowed you up on every side, lihyotkhem morasha lish’erit hago’yim – that you might be a possession to the rest of the nations..." [Ezek. 36:3] In this case the word is translated quite differently, to mean possession.

So, what is the word ‘morasha’ and why do we have such a confusion?

In the Hebrew we have active and passive forms of the verb. To teach and to learn are examples of such ‘two sides of the same verb’ like two sides of a coin: Lilmod and lelamed. But, what are the two sides of the verb ‘to inherit?’ In Hebrew it is ‘yerusha’ and ‘morasha’ – in English it is less clear: inheritance is what we leave to the next generation — and inheritance is what we get from the generation that was before us. Inheritance is the land we received from our forefathers, and it is our possession. If our inheritance is spiritual or cultural in nature, we can call it a ‘heritage.’

Not so in Hebrew! There is a definite difference between what we pass on to the generation that comes after us — that is ‘morasha,’ and that which we receive from the generation that came before us — that is yerusha. Had the text been written to mean "and I will give it to you for a heritage," the word yerusha would have been used, and the verse would have been as simple and straight forward as one might wish it to be, and as it is in many other places. However, this text is different. Moshe has been commissioned by God to save Israel from the evil yoke of Egyptian slavery, and all he has done in the last portion we read was to make Israel suffer even more than they did before he approached Pharaoh. Now Moshe reproaches God, "Lord, why have you done evil to this people? Why have you sent me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has done evil to this people; neither have you saved your people at all." [Ex. 5:22,23]

God answers Moshe and tells him that "Now shall you see what I will do to Pharaoh; for with a strong hand shall he let them go, and with a strong hand shall he drive them out of his land." [Ex. 6:2] God tells Moshe that he will deliver the children of Israel and remove them from Egypt and have a special relationship with them: "And I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God; and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who brings you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians." [Ex. 6:7] And then comes that verse which I quoted at the beginning of my talk: "And I will bring you in to the land, concerning which I swore to give it to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; venatati ota lakhem morasha, ani Adona’y — and I will give it to you for a heritage; I am the Lord." And hopefully now you understand the full implication of the text with that word, ‘morasha,’ as part of the text. God tells Moshe that land is not a possession but a trust. God is not giving the land to any one generation, to any one age, to do with ‘as they please!’ It is not a yerusha which one may waste and/or spoil and give away or dispose of. It is something one has to handle with great care, for each generation that receives it does so with a view to the future. This is the ‘morasha,’ that which you will eventually bequeath to your progeny. As you handle it ask yourself, what will I be leaving to my children and their children after them? Will they be as happy to receive it as I was when I inherited it from my parents?

Once we understand this passage, we can also understand better the other two times when the word ‘morasha’ was used. "Torah tziva lanu Moshe morasha kehilat Ya’akov — Moses commanded us a Torah, the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob." We are taught that what Moshe instructed us is a trust for the entire community, the congregation, of the descendants of Jacob. No one person has a special relation with the Torah — not the priests — the Cohanim, not the special teachers — the great Rabbanim, certainly not a sect or faction that claims to have the complete and absolute truth. The Torah is that which is received by every generation, and by the words of Ezekiel, "Therefore prophesy and say, Thus says the Lord God: Because they have made you desolate, and swallowed you up on every side, lihyotkhem morasha lish’erit hago’yim — that you might be a possession to the rest of the nations..." Also that which the rest of God creation can take from us is still part of our ‘morasha,’ and the prophet is told that God is a faithful steward who will ensure that the ‘morasha’ of the land shall be there for the people when they are ready to live by their covenant with God. Yisrael was destined to live in the land of morasha, with the Torah as his spiritual morasha, his home of the spirit with God. May the people, the land, and the purpose of our very existence, never cease to be our goal, our labor, and our pride to pass on to our children, and may the coming generations know how to accept and appreciate what they inherit.

 

Amen

 

Va’era 5760

This week we read the portion of ‘ Va’era’ – the second portion in Sefer Shmot, the ‘book of Names,’ – which is, of course, the of the second book of the Torah, called in English Exodus. I am reading the Torah again this year, for the umpteenth time, and yet I seem to be reading it for the first time ever! I thank God and I bless God every day for being able to study and see so much new wisdom in this wonderful God inspired book.

In last week’s portion, we read that Moshe had been commissioned by God to save Israel from the evil yoke of Egyptian slavery. "Come now therefore, and I will send you to Pharaoh, that you may bring forth my people the children of Israel out of Egypt." [Ex. 3:10] This mission was backed up by promises of swift justice and terrible retribution for wrongs done: " And I am sure that the king of Egypt will not let you go, if not by a mighty hand. And I will stretch out my hand, and strike Egypt with all my wonders which I will do in its midst; and after that he will let you go." [Ex. 3:19,20] So, against his better judgement, Moshe does go to Egypt, rallies the Israelites to the cause, meets Pharaoh – and loses the first battle. Pharaoh rejects the very idea of God’s power and sovereignty. "And Pharaoh said, Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice to let Israel go? I know not the Lord, nor will I let Israel go." [Ex. 5:2] The king proceeds to lay a heavier burden on the Israelites, instructing the task-masters, "You shall no more give the people straw to make bricks, as till now; let them go and gather straw for themselves. And the quantity of the bricks, which they did make till now, you shall lay upon them; you shall not diminish nothing of it; for they are idle; therefore they cry, saying, Let us go and sacrifice to our God." [Ex. 5:7,8]

So Moshe is "a failure." He must have had terrible anxiety, fearing that the Israelites would turn on him for his part in their misfortune. He had to have a rage against God, and he surely had more than just a little self doubt. "I should have stayed in the dessert," and "I should never have turned in to look at that damned bush that was burning and was not consumed..." These kind of thoughts must have flooded the man who knew great power and wealth asa prince of Egypt and poverty and misery as an escaped Hebrew down on his luck in the tents of Midian. After all, what can one man, with all the good intentions in the world, do against a political machine such as the Egyptian government of ancient times? I am reminded of a song that was popular some thirty or forty years ago. It was called, "High Hopes." Did you ever hear it? The words went something like,

Just what makes that silly old ram

Try to make a crack in the dam

Every one said "just scram, Ram!"

He kept butting that dam!

‘Cause he had high hopes, he had high hopes,

He had high, apple pie, in the sky hopes!

So every time you’re feeling low,

‘Stead of letting go,

Just remember that ram...

Oops, there goes a million kilowatt dam!

Get yourself up, Moshe, and go speak to Pharaoh, again. Don’t worry about what happened during your first encounter. The dam is strong, and thick, and solid. But you shall persevere. God commands you to hit where it hurts the most - in the river of Egypt, and in the waters of Egypt, a barren land that exists solely by the gift of clear cool water from the lands of the south. "And you shall say to him, The Lord God of the Hebrews has sent me to you, saying, Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness; and, behold, till now you would not hear. Thus said the Lord, In this you shall know that I am the Lord; behold, I will strike with the rod that is in my hand upon the waters which are in the river, and they shall be turned to blood. And the fish that is in the river shall die, and the river shall stink; and the Egyptians shall loathe to drink water of the river." [Ex. 7:16-18] Here comes the first dam crashing, releasing its torrent of anger and violence, demanding and receiving retribution!

Apropos bursting the dam: We can all make a difference and become a liberator like Moshe. The National Broadcasting Network cable station, MSNBC, tried to find what people thought was the "Worst Idea of the Millennium." They launched a survey on their web page, and the anti-Israel powers thought that they could exploit this survey to score an easy public relations victory and shake the very foundation of Israel’s existence. Early in the evolution of this MSNBC.com poll they began to ‘stack the survey’ with one "Worst Idea" – the Balfour Declaration! Considering that most people in the world don’t even know what this one "Worst Idea" is, it is obvious that they organized to defame Israel by the fact that over 5,500 votes were cast calling the Balfour Declaration the "Worst Idea."

This is when Camera, the Committee monitoring Reports about Israel in the media alerted people all over the country about this survey and its result. They suggested to counter this campaign against Israel by voting for "the Holocaust," which was then ranked in seventh place with 161 votes.

As of today, MSNBC.com reported 6,084 votes for "the Balfour Declaration" and 30,933 votes for "the Holocaust," placing "the Holocaust" firmly in the number one position as the "Worst Idea of the Millennium." So, you must have confidence, even as Moshe had, knowing he was the servant of the Holy One, Master of the universe, creator, judge, and merciful father. His will shall be done, His people shall be set free. So it has been, so it is today, and so shall it ever be.

 

Amen

 

 

Va'era 5761

 

The portion read this week in the Torah, Va’era – which is the second portion of the book of Shmot, Exodus, begins in chapter 6, "And God spoke to Moses, saying, `I am YHVH; and I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob as God Almighty -- but by my name YHVH I made Me not known to them." The questions that begs to be asked are: what is YHVH, and why didn’t God make Himself known to the Patriarchs by that name.

We must recall the passage in last week’s reading, where Moshe asked God, "Behold, when I come to the people of Israel, and shall say to them, The God of your fathers has sent me to you; and they shall say to me, What is his name, what shall I say to them? And God said to Moses, Ehyeh asher ehyeh - I AM THAT I AM; and he said, Thus shall you say to the people of Israel, Ehyeh - I AM has sent me to you. And God said moreover to Moses, Thus shall you say to the people of Israel, The Lord God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you; this is my name forever, and this is my memorial to all generations." [Ex. 3:13-15] So, if his name is "Ehyeh" why does the text in this week’s portion say YHVH?

The sages teach us that God relates to us in the way that we wish for him to relate to us. Shakespeare asked "what’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet..." [Romeo and Juliet, Act II Scene II] And, of course, Shakespeare is correct - but in the Torah names relate to events and to times. The patriarchs were at the beginning of their journey across time, and "God Almighty" was the shield of their protection. However, because they were the start-up cast, they had no past that they wanted to keep, and they were too busy struggling with their future to concern themselves with what will be in the future.

Now Moshe is going down to Egypt, where the Children of Israel are suffering in bondage because they are different from the rest of the Egyptians. They have a past - they are the family of Joseph, who saved Egypt at the time of the great famine; they are the people that Pharaoh once allowed to dwell in the finest land as guests of Egypt. Their present is misery - and they cry out to God to change their lot, to set them free - which is to say, to give them a better future. Moshe comes out of the wasteland of Sinai and says", "I have been sent by God to redeem you." And who is that God? He is the God of the future, "Ehyeh," who is also the god of the past, "Ha’yah," and without a doubt he is also the God of the present, "Hoveh" who right here and now will perform signs and wonders such as have never been seen in Egypt or anywhere else. This combination of past, present, and future is represented in Hebrew in the four letters YHVH or in the verse of the hymn based on the thirteen articles of faith of Maimonadese, "Vehu Ha’yah vehu Hoveh vehu Yihyeh betifa’ra." – and He Was and He is, and He shall be in His glory. With God coming to their help, they shall be delivered out of Egypt and shall become a holy people and a nation of priests, serving God Almighty and witnessing to His sovereignty and Glory.

Amen

 

Va'era 5762

This week's Torah portion continues the saga of Moshe Rabenu, our great emancipator Moses, in his mission to remove the Israelites from Egypt. It begins with a quick reiteration of the relationship of God to Israel from the time of the patriarchs. Here we read the pivotal passage of God's concern for the Children of Israel: "Therefore say to the people of Israel, I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will rid you from their slavery, and I will redeem you with a outstretched arm, and with great judgments; And I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God; and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who brings you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians." [Ex. 6:6,7] Then God again dispatches Moshe to the king's court to speak to Pharaoh and demand the release of the Hebrew slaves. However, you recall that last week we read that when Moses first spoke to Pharaoh, not only did the Egyptian monarch refuse to release the Israelites, he actually increased their burdens. Moses became and agent of Israelite suffering. He does not want to do Israel any more harm.
Yet God had a "master plan," and would not allow Moshe to escape his mission. We read, "And the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, and gave them a charge to the people of Israel, and to Pharaoh king of Egypt, to bring the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt." [Ex. 6:13] We are often asked what kind of a God would cause suffering of the kind Egypt was to suffer next. The text says, " You shall speak all that I command you; and Aaron your brother shall speak to Pharaoh, that he send the people of Israel out of his land. And I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and multiply my signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt. But Pharaoh shall not listen to you, that I may lay my hand upon Egypt, and bring forth my armies, and my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great judgments. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch forth my hand upon Egypt, and bring out the people of Israel from among them." [Ex. 7:2-5]
Our sages and commentators tell us that we have to understand the issue involved in the removing of Israel from Egypt. Could God have taken the Israelites out without punishing Egypt? The answer is a definite yes! However, God gives humanity free choice. The Egyptians could not be forced by God, in a super-natural act, to release the Israelites. The unfolding story had to show that Egypt had a chance to make a choice at every point in the unfolding events. They could turn to God of their own free will, or they could continue to believe in their false gods and fetishes - even when their shortcomings stared them in the face. The confrontation between God and the Egyptian was a polemic exercise: the false gods of Egypt and the Creator of the universe - whom is to be believed and followed. The Torah does not view the events as plagues, but rather, as our text states, "signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt" which have the effect of bringing Israel out "by great judgments."
So what we traditionally call "plagues" are called in our text "signs and wonders and judgements." Our sages teach us that the events that God wrought were an attack on the belief system of Egypt. The Egyptians believed in the Nile, the great river, as a God of Egypt. The first two assaults of God were specifically against the Nile. First the water was turned to blood, and then the waters became the breeding grounds of millions upon millions of frogs. The chief goddess took the shape of a cow - and from the cows came the lice and the boils that next hit Egypt. Next came two illnesses that struck mankind, showing the total lack of power of the king and government, the priests and diviners to stand before the power of Almighty God. The Egyptians also believed in the storm goddess, sometimes called "Sitt," symbolized by the cat or the lioness (the "sphinx" is one example of this goddess). Hail and locusts, brought by the hot desert wind, showed that the climate is not impervious to the God of Israel. Finally, there was great emphasis of Egyptian culture and religion on ancestor worship and reverence for the dead. It is for their dead that the Egyptians planned and slaved to build palaces and pyramids. Now God introduced Egypt to the equality that existed before Him. First, all the heathens came under the shadow of death, in the greatest blackout of all times - the "plague of darkness." This foretelling of the one true "plague" to hit Egypt is followed by the death of the firstborn of all Egypt, "from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon; and all the firstborn of cattle" [Ex. 12:29] No one was spared in the whole kingdom of evil and death.
Lest you think that this terrible confrontation between good and evil, between God Almighty and the false gods of Egypt, is merely a jousting match, the story of the trial of Egypt is presented in short steps and long pauses. Again and again God allows the Egyptians time to recover. Time to learn the lesson of their fall - and possibly to accept His sovereignty. God does not wish the death of the wicked - but only that they repent and change their way. Time and again the nature of the people and their king makes the learning of the lesson impossible. Even as the events take place, the issue is never the suffering of the Egyptians. The Israelites are not allowed to gloat over the demise of their enemies. Overlaying the story of the confrontation between God and Egypt is the message of hope for redemption, for freedom, for the joyful service of God. This is what we are preparing for, both in Egypt that long ago - and throughout the ages of our existence, in our own land and in the exile that lasted two thousand years.
Amen and Shabbat shalom.

 

Va'era 5763

This week we read in the Torah the second portion in the second book, which is the book of Shemot, the portion called Va'era, . Last week we read about the humble birth and royal rearing of Moshe Rabenu and his first encounter with Egyptian persecution of the Israelites, which ended with Moshe killing the Egyptian taskmaster, thus making necessary his exile to the Sinai desert. We read of his coming upon Jethero's daughters at the well, his invitation to stay with the Midianites, his marriage to Tzipora -- and his meeting with God at the burning bush at Mount Khorev. The portion ended with Moshe returning to Egypt to redeem the Israelites at God's command, and his initial failure to impress Pharaoh with his mission.
This week the story continues, God again sends Moshe to speak to the Israelites, and we read, "Va' ydaber Moshe ken el Bnai Yisrael velo sham' u el moshe mikotzer Ru' akh ume' avoda kasha – And Moshe spoke so to the people of Israel; but they listened not to Moshe's because of their anguished spirit, and because of the cruel slavery." [Ex. 6:9] Most sages and commentators agreed that the text in the Hebrew is exactly as our translation gives it: that there was one reason that they did not listen, namely the "cruel slavery" made them anguished in the spirit. This means that the Yisraelites suffered from what Pharaoh decreed - the extra hard labor.
Recently I was studying the passage and I came across the commentary of a sage of the late 13th century, Rabbi Levi ben Gershom, who looks at the text as a listing of two reasons: The Yisraelites did not listen to Moshe because of an anguished spirit – which means a lack of patience, and because they were overwhelmed with the extra work Pharaoh had placed upon them. This is quite a charge to make, and Rabbi Levi explains that the people were impatient with Moshe because he had been living by himself in the desert, communing with God for so long that he had lost the ability to communicate well with people. His heavy mouth, as he stated to God at the burning bush, became the reason for the Yisraelites' "anguished spirit."
Whichever way we look at the verse, we have to ask, what exactly was this "anguished spirit" and how did Moshe get his people over it? According to most commentators the Yisralites were so overworked that they suffered from " tiredness to the bone," a condition that made them unapproachable with "news" – good or otherwise. Or else, they added to the physical woes a mental condition brought about by the length of their suffering, the bitterness of the edicts Pharaoh had issued concerning the male children, and the fear that Moshe's interference may bring more severe edicts yet. This kind of interpretation fits the text well and is quite common, as I said.
Rabbi Levi ben Gershom, however, looks deeper into the issue, and analyses, if fact, the symptoms to find the ailment. Levi said that if the anguished spirit was the direct result of the hard labor - the Children of Yisrael would have been doomed to remain slaves forever. For if one is incapable of entertaining ideas such as freedom and redemption - where will those come from? Even with the Holy One, blessed be He, as redeemer, the Yisraelites had to cry out to Him before he heard them and came down to deliver them.
Rabbi Levi contends that the anguished spirit was not caused by suffering, or tiredness, neither was it prompted by edicts or the fear of yet more terrible edicts. The sage sees all the above for what they are: symptoms of a beaten spirit! He does not blame Moshe - but rather recognizes that there is a shortcoming of the generation of Yisrael that Moshe came to redeem. They are a people without faith. They are, unfortunately, conditioned to life in Egypt. Moshe will take them out of Egypt – but it will take a whole generation to take the Egypt out of them! They are big on signs and small on waiting. That is the character of their anguished spirit! When Moshe comes to Egypt they welcome him well enough – but as soon as he fails in his first encounter with the king – he is history.
Moshe overcame the anguished spirit of the Yisraelites by his faith and his steadfast fidelity to the cause of bringing the people to their fateful rendezvous with God at Sinai. Once he accepted God's call, Moshe never gave up on the people, even when they doubted him and "his God," even when they broke God's trust immediately after the revelation at Sinai. By the sheer power of his faith he overcame their doubts and restored their spirit from its anguish. That is why the phrase was coined, "there has never been any leader of Yisrael like Moshe." Thank God for such a leader and teacher, who has inspired us to keep faith and buoy our hope and become an eternal people, the People of the Covenant. Amen

 

Va'era 5765


Once again it is Shabbat eve, and once more we turn to our Book of Books to find wisdom and learning, to draw strength and find solace. This week, like so many other years at this time of the year, we are once again learning the details of the struggle to free the Israelites from bondage. We read the portion Va'era, which is the second portion in the second book, the book of Shemot. God required a man who would lead the Israelites to freedom – and that man was Moshe. Last week we read about the rearing of Moshe and his first encounter with Egyptian persecution of the Israelites, which ended with Moshe killing the taskmaster, making necessary his exile to the Sinai desert. We read of his encounter with Jethero's daughters, his invitation to stay with the Midianites, his marriage to Tzipora -- and his encounter with God at Mount Khorev. The portion ended with Moshe returning to Egypt to redeem the Israelites at God's command. That initial contact with the Pharaoh ended up in failure – failure to impress Pharaoh with his mission, failure to bring freedom to the Israelites. Indeed, it caused the Israelites more sorrow and suffering.
This week the text continues the story, and we read, "...And God spoke to Moses, and said to him, I am the Lord; And I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, by the name of God Almighty, but by my name The Lord was I not known to them. And I have also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their sojourning, in which they sojourned. And I have also heard the groaning of the people of Israel, whom the Egyptians keep in slavery; and I have remembered my covenant. Therefore say to the people of Israel, I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will rid you from their slavery, and I will redeem you with a outstretched arm, and with great judgments; And I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God; and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who brings you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. And I will bring you in to the land, concerning which I swore to give it to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; and I will give it to you for a heritage; I am the Lord." This is quite an inspiring message, meant to recharge Moshe in his effort to help his people to break the yoke of slavery. And yet...
And yet, we know that M oshe was not all that happy to undertake the mission in the first place, and his first step was so unsuccessful that Moshe might never have taken another step to intervene in the affaires of the poor and downtrodden slaves. That is why God takes the track we see in our text. It is as if He is saying to Moshe, "O.k., Moshe, you didn't do so well the first time out -- but don't let it get you down, don’t you lose heart. You are still my messenger, the choice leader I have commissioned to bring the Israelites out of Egypt."
God has a plan for His creation. We could call it the "original blueprint" of creation, the one and only way God wants His world to be, you might say. Yet, it is nigh on impossible to reconcile this blueprint with what we see in the world around us – with the evil that has spoiled God’s design by the action of mankind. Humanity, alone of all God’s creation, is given the potentially horrific gift of God, namely, free will. If man has free will, and we certainly believe, even insist, that he does – than God's blueprint can (and you can just about bet on it, will) be contravened. Thus, God may have wished to see the Children of Israel depart the land of their enslavement with the first appearance of Moshe at Pharaoh's court – but it was not to be, because Pharaoh had his own choices to make, and having lived his life contrary to God's will thus far, he certainly had the proclivity to continue, and it was almost predictable that he would not hearken to God's call. Human nature is established through repeated experience. 'Mitzvah goreret mitzvah,' one mitzvah draws you to another, 'va'avera goreret avera,' and a transgression draws another transgression. Pharaoh had been living with 'averot' for so long that he no longer knew that they were transgressions. What about God's blueprint? It had to be altered.
God wished for life on earth to follow a certain track – but mankind chose to go after their heart’s desire, even when it went against the teachings of God. Instead of learning to live in peace with one another, creating a harmonious world, we chose to turn our eyes away from the world and fix them on ourselves. As long as we’re O.K. - all is well. As long as Europe and the United States, and a few other advanced (read rich) nations were not threatened – let the good times roll. So what if people are starving in Africa and China; so what if more than a million have died in the Sudan in the last few years; so what is 800,000 human beings are sold into slavery, right now, this year, with some of the trade happening under our very noses – we don’t see the evil, and pretend it does not exist. And God’s plan? It gets pushed back another decade, another century. Its like a change order in the process of building something.
What we have to understand is that the alterations, the change orders, when they happen, become part of the master plan. Just as in our own little projects, the change orders to God’s master plan have a cost factor. A million and a half dead in Sudan; three hundred thousand dead in Algeria, two hundred thousand dead in the Sumatra earthquake. Eventually, the world keeps progressing, we come back to God's blueprint, leading us toward the time of the sovereignty of God over all of his creation, in a world that lives by God's law in harmony and security. This ideal time will arrive when all mankind will recognize God's fatherhood and humanity's brotherhood. The path to this ideal is through love – love of God, love of family, love of humanity and love of life in all the many ways that it is manifested. When we learn to live our lives, all of us separately and together, with due consideration and careful vigil, with integrity and self respect, as well as respect for others, we shall discover that we are working with God's blueprint, and we shall truly be at ease, be secure – and be free!

 

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