Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Friday, January 15, 2010

There are four Sedra Shorts on Pashat VaEra:

Hashem and the Avot

Moshe's Reluctance to Lead

Knowing God

Discovering God

Scroll down for each Dvar Torah

Hashem and the Avot

This week's parsha begins with an incredible statement:

"I appeared to Avraham, to Yitschak, and Yaakov with [the name] Almighty God (El Shadai), but My name Hashem (the Lord) I did not become known to them" (Shemot 6:3).

Can this really be true, that the Patriarchs were unaware of God's name Hashem? We actually know that this is not the case. Indeed, Avraham says to the King of Sedom: "I raise my hand to Hashem, the Most High God, Who possesses heaven and earth" Bereshit 14:22).

In order to solve this problem we must examine 3 issues:

· What does the name El Shadai represent?

· What does the name Hashem represent?

· What does Hashem mean when He says that the Avot did not know Him with this name?

When God made a covenant with the Fathers, promising their descendants the Land of Canaan, He did it with the name El Shadai.

We see this firstly with Avraham: at the Brit Millah: " At the Brit Milla: "I am El Shadai; walk before Me and be perfect" (Bereshit 17:1).

When Yitschak passed the blessing onto Yaakov he said: "May El Shadai bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, and you shall become an assembly of peoples. May He give you the blessing of Avraham" (ibid 28:3-4).

God then confirmed this promise to Yaakov: "I am El Shadai; be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a multitude of nations shall come into existence from you, and kings shall come forth from your loins" (ibid 35:11).

Therefore, the name El Shadai represents God's attribute of power to make this promise.

Therefore, when God tells Moshe: "I am El Shadai", He is saying that He is the God of the covenant. However, by adding that He is also Hashem, God is adding a new dimension, i.e. that this promise is about to be fulfilled. The name Hashem represents God's power to fulfil the promise.

Therefore, God reveals Himself to Moshe with both the name El Shadai and Hashem, because He has chosen Moshe to be the person to fulfill the promise.

Therefore, The avot may have intellectually known about God's power to fulfill the promise, i.e., they knew that he had a name called: Hashem. However, they did have any experience of this name. Indeed, they were always strangers in the the land. It was never theirs.

The Hebrew word: "
לדעת", "to know" does not refer to intellectual capability. "The man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived" (Bereshit 5:1). Eve did not conceive because Adam knew her intellectually, but because he knew her intimately, he had a relationship with her.

So too, God not let the Avot experience Hashem, i.e. they remained strangers in the Land. Now, however, was the time for Israel and the world, to experience God as Hashem. It was the time for redemption.

Moshe's Reluctance to Lead

In this week's parsha, Moshe tries to get out of the mission that God gave him.

E already saw that at the Burning Bush, Moshe gave God a number of reasons why he could not go to Egypt to deliver His Message. His excuses included:

· Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh...?" (Shemot 3:11)

· "They say to me, 'What is His name?' what shall I say to them?" (ibid 13)

· "Behold they will not believe me" (4:1)

· "I beseech You, O Lord. I am not a man of words, neither from yesterday nor from the day before yesterday" (ibid 10)

God did not get angry with Moshe over these questions, but instead, answered each and every point. However, when Moshe again tried to get out of the mission, God finally got angry with him:

"He (Moshe) said, "I beseech You, O Lord, send now [Your message] with whom You would send." And the Lord's wrath was kindled against Moshe, and He said, "Is there not Aharon your brother…And he will speak for you to the people, and it will be that he will be your speaker, and you will be his leader" (ibid 13-16).

God had no problem with Moshe questioning Him. On the contrary, he expects us to question Him and to not accept His orders blindly. Therefore, He does not get angry with Moshe in the beginning.

However, when Moshe stopped the questions and simply said that he did not want to do it, God got angry. We have the right to question, but we do not have the right to shirk our responsibilities.

Moshe is therefore, punished. By trying to do get out of the mission, God reduced Moshe's role and promoted Aharaon in his place. Aharon would now speak to the people on His behalf.

Last week's parsha ends with Pharaoh worsening Israel's conditions of slavery. Moshe felt that it was God's fault and said so to him, again questioning his role.

"O Lord! Why have You harmed this people? Why have You sent me?Since I have come to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has harmed this people, and You have not saved Your people" (5:22-23).

Again, God does not get angry, for Moshe's claim is legitimate. He simply tells him, at the beginning of this week's parsha, that He will soon redeem Israel. He then tells Moshe to go again to Pharaoh and ask him to free Israel. Moshe responds:

"Behold, the children of Israel did not hearken to me. How then will Pharaoh hearken to me, seeing that I am of closed lips? (ibid 6:12)."

It's unclear if Moshe is making excuses again. We had just been told that Israel would not listen to Moshe "because of [their] shortness of breath and because of [their] hard labor (ibid 6:9).

Moshe might be saying that he thinks that the reason they did not listen to him is simply because he's not a good speaker and therefore, God should send someone else.

The passuk does not say whether God was angry or not with him, but what is clear is that God demotes him again. God tells him: "See! I have made you a lord over Pharaoh, and Aaron, your brother, will be your speaker. You shall speak all that I command you, and Aaron, your brother, shall speak to Pharaoh" (ibid 7:1-2).

Aharon will now be the one to speak to Pharaoh.

The Torah is trying to teach us that we do have a right to question as long as our questions are a search for the truth, rather than an excuse to refuse God's law.

Knowing God

Before the Exodus from Egypt, no one seemed to know God.

Pharaoh did not know God: "Who is the Lord that I should heed His voice to let Israel out? I do not know the Lord, neither will I let Israel out" (Shemot 5:2)

Moshe and the children of Israel also did not know God: "Behold I come to the children of Israel, and I say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they say to me, 'What is His name?' what shall I say to them?" (ibid 3:13).

Not even the Avot knew God: "I appeared to Avraham, to Yitzchak and to Yakov as E-l Shaddai, but My name
הויה I made not known to them" (ibid 6:2).

Therefore God does a series of acts so that Israel would know Him: "Therefore, say to the children of Israel, 'I am the Lord, and I will take you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians ... and you will know that I am the Lord" (ibid 6-7).

He also does a series of acts so that Egypt would know Him: "The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord when I stretch forth My hand over Egypt, and I will take the children of Israel out of their midst" (ibid 7:5).

However, this lesson was taught to them in stages. First Egypt was to learn that: "I am the Lord" (ibid 7:17) - the first three plagues proved that God controls nature. Then they were to learn that: "I am the Lord in the midst of the earth" (ibid 8:18) - the second group of plagues showed that God was active justly in the world. Finally, the Egyptians had to discover that: "there is none like Me in the entire earth" (ibid 9:14) - the final group of plagues showed that God is all powerful and that He cannot be subordinated.

Previously, the world had only experienced God as: "E-l Shaddai" – the Almighty God of creation, i.e. the God who had done mighty deeds in the past. Yet now, God wanted humanity to learn His other name, namely He wanted to renew His relationship with mankind in a way that they had not yet experienced.

The world was to now experience God as "
הויה" – the ever present and ever involved God. Humanity was to learn that God is involved in all aspects of the human present and its destiny.

Our relationship with God is still lacking and is to be upgraded in the future: "On that day the Lord will be one and His name will be one" (Zechariah 14:9).

Discovering God

When Moshe first ordered Pharaoh: “So says the Lord (Hashem) God of Israel, Let My people go...” (Shemot 5:1-2), Pharaoh gave three responses:

· “Who is the Lord that I should obey His voice…” – essentially Hashem had never proven Himself in the pantheon of gods and so didn’t need to be obeyed.

· “I do not know the Lord” – essentially Hashem is not involved with humanity, He does not have a relationship with any people on earth

· “neither will I let Israel out" – finally, Pharaoh declares that he alone is the supreme authority and that no god can order him to free Israel

Pharaoh needs a lesson in theology, so God sends him three series of plagues; each series is a response to a different point that Pharaoh made.

Series 1 begins with a declaration: “So that you will know that I am the Lord” (ibid 7:17). And so God pollutes Egypt’s main water source, the frogs leave the water and when they die, lice attack the Egyptians. Pharaoh’s magicians cannot replicate the third plague and so concede defeat declaring: “It is the finger of God” (ibid 8:15). Pharaoh’s first question has been answered as his own magicians acknowledge God. Round 1 to God.

Series 2 begins with the declaration: “So that you know that I am the Lord in the midst of the earth” (ibid 18), i.e. that God exists on earth and has a relationship with humanity. God does this by bringing three plagues that “separate on that day the land of Goshen, upon which My people stand” (ibid), i.e. Israel does not suffer from these three plagues. Pharaoh even checks that that has been the case: “Pharaoh sent, and behold, not even one of the livestock of Israel died” (ibid 9:7). Pharaoh’s servants again concede defeat after the third plague as they “could not stand before Moshe because of the boils” (ibid 11). Pharaoh’s second question has been answered; God is involved in humanity’s fortunes. Round 2 to God.

Series 3 begins with the declaration: “So that you know that there is none like Me in the entire earth” (ibid 14), i.e. that God, not Pharaoh, is the supreme authority. God does this by bringing three plagues “the likes of which has never been in Egypt from the day of its being founded until now” (ibid 19). Pharaoh’s servants acknowledge defeat after the warning about the second plague, locusts, when they tell Pharaoh: “Don't you yet know that Egypt is lost?” (ibid 10:7). Pharaoh himself acknowledges partial defeat when he promises for the first time that he will allow Israel’s males to leave Egypt (ibid 10). However, Pharaoh is too stubborn to acknowledge total defeat and so while God does win Round 3 on points, only a knockout will cause Pharaoh to fully concede and recognize the Lord.