Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah – Va-eira
What does it mean to know God? In this week’s portion, God introduces God’s self by “name.” God spoke to Moses, saying, “I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob with the name El Shaddai (Almighty God), but with My name YHWH, I did not become known to them.” (Exodus 6)
We look to the Biblical Patriarchs and Matriarchs as great people. They had horrific limitations, but the Biblical stories clearly represent human – blessings and frailties. Abraham and Sarah are Avraham v’Sarah Avotaenu – Abraham and Sarah, our Ancestors. We honor them for being the first to demonstrate enough faith to leave their comfortable home to share God’s blessings. When it came to standing up to God as a partner, Abraham started but failed. He argued with God on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah’s people but backed away and was silent to the call to kill his own son.
The Talmud teaches us, “God said to Moses: Many times I revealed Myself to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; they did not question My ways, nor did they say to me, ‘What is Your name?’ You, on the other hand, asked from the start, ‘What is Your name?’ and now you are saying to Me, ‘You have not saved Your people!” (Sanhedrin 111a)
The great sage from the Middle Ages, RaSHI wrote, “You questioned My ways, unlike Abraham, to whom I said, ‘Isaac shall be considered your seed,” and then I said to him, ‘Raise him up to Me as an offering’—and still he did not question Me.”
It is not until Moses that someone was willing to call God to the task and not back down. Four-fifths of the Torah recounts the building of their partnership. We refer to Moses as Moshe Rabbaenu – Moses, our teacher. God respects the engagement and challenge and gives Moses access to more intimate relationships with divinity.
The beginning of the Exodus story reminds us that greatness requires one to stand up to be counted. Righteousness respects righteous strength. An undercurrent running through the Rabbinic commentaries uses our bondage to symbolize the fear that shackles us into stagnation. We enslave ourselves when we don’t stand up. Elie Weisel said, “Silence is complicity.” If we don’t speak up, we ascent to whatever abuse happens around us.
Torah teaches us, “Tzedek tzedek tirdoff – Justice, Justice, You shall pursuit it!” (Deuteronomy 16:20). We have to stand up and pursue justice. The challenge that we face, though, is to remember that standing up is not irrational and must be respectful. Even where Moses gets in God’s face (Exodus 32), he does so with a loving and respectful rebuke.
The measure of justice is not always about upon what side you stand; it is the love and respect with which you view the engagement with those with whom you agree and disagree. The measure is how we stand up against the hate, fear, and bigotry that drives the destruction of communities, and at the same time, work to rehabilitate the human relationship.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, “When we hear and accept what we hear without meeting others, without asking how can it be, without looking for friends outside our circles, when we accept hatred for a group as a legitimate discourse – Pharaoh is alive and well, inside ourselves.” We have to move past honoring our ancestors and into using the legacy they left us – we must move it forward. Knowing God, knowing justice, and knowing peace depends on our loving enough to stand up for it and for each other. As per Pirke Avot in the Mishnah, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what good am I? If not now, when?” Moses, our teacher, this begins his story –and I pray, ours.