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Torah Sparks

Parashat Va’era - Mevarekhim Hahodesh
December 28, 2013 – 25 Tevet 5774

Annual (Exodus 6:2 – 9:35): Etz Hayim p. 351; Hertz p. 232
Triennial (Exodus 6:2 – 7:7): Etz Hayim p. 351; Hertz p. 232
Haftarah (Ezekiel 28:25 – 29:21): Etz Hayim p. 369; Hertz p. 244

Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, South Carolina

God reiterates assurances that Moses’s mission will be successful and the Israelites will be redeemed. We are provided with a genealogy of Moses’s family.

Moses again approaches Pharaoh to demand that the Israelites leave Egypt. Pharaoh refuses; God turns Egyptian water into blood. Pharaoh says that he will let the Israelites leave, and God stops the plague. But then, Pharaoh changes his mind.

This is the first example of a recurring pattern: God causes a plague, Pharaoh promises to let the Israelites leave, the plague stops, then Pharaoh changes his mind due to a “hardened heart.” The pattern takes place seven times in today’s portion.

Theme #1: My Name is … What?

God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name YHWH.” (Exodus 6:2-3)

As Moses prepares to face Pharaoh again, God wishes to show His prophet the special place that Moses has in Israel’s nascent history.

The proximity of the revelation of the new name to the first occurrence of the family-establishing formula cannot be fortuitous. The more intimate familial status that Israel now enjoys with the Lord is dramatically expressed by the new first-name basis that the parties now enjoy. … Judah HaLevi says [in the Kuzari] the use of the name YHWH in this context is like a person calling his friend Reuven or Shimon. – Rabbi Yochanan Muffs, Love & Joy

As “El Shaddai” I made promises to them, and, with all of them, I said, “I am El Shaddai.” I did not make Myself known to them by My name “Y-H-W-H.” It doesn’t say, “lo hodati’ (I didn’t make known) but rather “lo nodati” (I did not make Myself known). I was not recognized by them through My attribute of faithfulness, in virtue of which I am called “Y-H-W-H,” faithful to carry out My words. ... -- Rashi on Exodus 6:3

The multiplication of names is one way to express the power and station of the deity. … This diversity of names is also reflected in Exodus 6:2-3, where God indicates that there were some names that had been manifest to the patriarchs, but that he had not yet acted in ways that would manifest the identity bound up in the name Yahweh. His statement does not suggest that the patriarchs had never been introduced to the name Yahweh, but that he had not fulfilled that role in their experience. -- John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament

Questions for Discussion:

Muffs suggests that God’s introduction of God’s self as YHWH is fitting given the genealogy of Moses’ and Aaron’s family that follows, as if God is encouraging Moses to feel comfortable with God as much as he would with family. When public figures encourage us to speak to them on a first-name basis, does that increase our level of comfort or does that kind of familiarity reduce proper boundaries?

Rashi's commentary emphasizes that God had used the name YHWH while dealing with our patriarchs, but that the word should mean something different in the case of Moses' relationship with God. How many people do we know “by name,” but not by their values and true nature? What does it take for us to know someone more than just “by name?”

Walton indicates that God recognizes that the patriarachs’ knowledge of God is incomplete, and that God hopes that Moses’s knowledge will be fuller. To what extent does Moses eventually know God? To what extent is it possible for any of us to know God?

Theme #2: “Is That You, God?”

The Lord replied to Moses, “See, I place you in the role of God to Pharaoh, with your brother Aaron as your prophet.” (Exodus 7:1)

Pharaoh is considered a god in Egyptian society. Moses’ privilege does not extend that far, but God makes clear that Moses has every right to stand against Pharaoh on equal footing.

Moses answered again, “I am of uncircumcised lips” (Exodus 6:30); and God replied, “See, I place you in the role of god to Pharaoh (Exodus 7:1): [You will charge Aaron with my messages, without Pharaoh hearing you. Aaron will act as your agent and communicate your words, just as God charges the prophet to communicate and castigate.”] This was great prestige for Moses, which he achieved through his modesty, in his embarrassment in speaking with “uncircumcised lips.” That is why it says, “The man Moses was very great in the land of Egypt in the eyes of Pharaoh’s servants and in the eyes of the people:” (Exodus 11:3) poetic justice, since he was afraid of being despicable in their eyes. -- Nachmanides on Exodus 6:13

Moses will be granted a power that no former covenant party enjoyed, as leader of an entire population, and could easily become the object of that people’s faith rather than a vehicle for transmitting faith in God. After all, in the eyes of the world, Moses will (as God later tells him) be as “a god to Pharaoh” (Exodus 7:1). This injunction however, cannot be taken too literally. To return to our point of departure, God’s circular response (“I am that I am”) does describe a boundary -- paradoxically, a boundary that cannot be defined, but one that nevertheless limits Moses’ ability to assume its powers -- Aaron Wildavsky, Moses as Political Leader

Moses is made as “god to Pharaoh,” that is to say, he is to function with divine authority before Pharaoh, and like God, make known his word through his prophet. Aaron is appointed the organ of the message, the description of which offers an important insight into the Hebrew understanding of the prophetic office. -- Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus

Questions for Discussion:

Nachmanides claims that Moses’ role as a “god” to Pharaoh is meant, at least in part, as a confidence boost, as a sign that he will approach the Egyptian king with true privilege. How do we try to boost the confidence of those who lack it? What are the best ways to show others that they are worthy of the company they keep and the tasks they are charged with?

Wildavsky tries to downplay the theological implications of Moses being made a “god,” saying that God had already made clear who is truly the boss. How essential are boundaries when we try to empower others? How can we set up appropriate boundaries without discouraging the spirits of those with whom we intend to work?

To Childs, God’s arrangement shifts Moses from prophet to god and Aaron from mere spokesperson to prophet. Over the course of the Torah, Moses and his siblings have to play many roles as leaders of the Israelites. When we attempt to lead others, how essential is versatility? How can we make ourselves more versatile for the sake of our communities? Must we?


 
 
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