Reflections on Parashat Va’era
By Jacob Cytryn, Director
Last week I spent two days in sunny and warm Southern California with twelve of our veteran counselors and over a hundred other Ramahniks from around North America as part of the National Ramah Commission’s Winter Training Institute, named in memory of the late Bert Weinstein (z”l), one of Ramah Wisconsin’s great lay leaders. While there I learned from and spent time catching up with my friend and colleague Rabbi Joel Alter, the Director of Admissions for the Rabbinical and Cantorial schools at the Jewish Theological Seminary. With Joel’s wit and wisdom fresh in my mind, I was pleasantly surprised to see an insightful D’var Torah Joel published this week through JTS, which opens with these words:
“God said to Moshe: I am YHVH. I was seen by Avraham, by Yitzhak, and by Ya’akov by the name El Shaddai, but by my name YHVH I was not known to them” (Exod. 6:2‒3).
God’s name YHVH is the verb “to be” with the past, present, and future tenses folded into the same conjugation: Eternity or Being in a single word.
Rashi teaches that the name El Shaddai was associated with God’s repeated promises about what would be in the future—promises repeatedly affirmed but never fulfilled in the forefathers’ lifetimes. In Exodus 6:3, God doesn’t say, “I never revealed to them my name YHVH.” Rather, that God was “not known to them” by the name YHVH. Here, “knowing” means experiencing.
God recognizes that as the ancestors never experienced God fulfilling God’s promises, it had been impossible to come to know God’s essential nature: the Eternal’s presence in which past promises about a great future are realized in present reality.
Channeling Alter and Rashi, El Shaddai (often translated “The Almighty”) is the God of local shepherds who offers them wealth, protection, and promises of greatness. El Shaddai, as it were, is the prophetic side of God. But the crucial shift that happens here at the beginning of our parashah, from a God foretelling the future to one shaping that future – and not for an individual or a family but for a nation – is a shift from a God operating at a remove from history to a God who may actually be history. The God who is, the tetragrammaton (four-letter word) that we pronounce “Adonai,” represents a different aspect of God.
Years ago I read the innovative work God: A Biography, by former Jesuit priest Jack Miles. In the book, Miles chooses to read the Hebrew Bible as a literary critic reads a novel and at the center of the Biblical novel is its main character: God. Miles hones his playful premise on serious theological points, tracing the character development of God from Genesis through Chronicles. I do not remember Miles’s read of this specific sequence but I could imagine interpreting it as a shift from the viewpoint of a child in the stories of B’reishit to adolescence here – teenager as assertive historical actor, who is what she will be, whose being wants to reshape the landscape of society.
One of the great joys of working with a summer camp population is watching the shift, subtly then at all once, from childhood to adolescence and then, years later, to adulthood. It is a shift from a parochial simplicity, from simple narratives of black and white, to the world of nuance and the assumption of responsibility. It is a challenging and chaotic shift, and one that can be unbelievably rewarding to watch if we can stand it.
This week, I feel conflicted about the message I take away from these observations, from God’s development from an earlier era of Jewish prehistory to the one that still defines us. On the one hand, the little slice of our Ramah world is robust and glowing, the memories and stories from over forty staff members who participated in Ramah-related professional development opportunities in Chile, Israel, and the United States over winter break are fresh. This Shabbat, over fifty Ramahniks will gather at a hotel outside Chicago for a reunion of our Tikvah and Atzmayim programs from this past summer, including over a dozen adolescents and young adults whose shift from childhood saw them develop a passion for working with people with special needs. As Yael and I begin staff interview season, the hopes and promises of summer pierce the chilly air.
And yet, the world outside of us seems scarier by the day, the terrors of Paris and Nigeria amplified by the defused plots in Belgium and the United States. Sometimes we feel surrounded by stories so disheartening that our reflex is to turn ever more inward as we search for comfort and safety.
It could not be more important that as I balance these feelings with the message of the opening verses of the Torah reading, my wife asks me if I am writing about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Not planning to,” I replied, until suddenly realizing that paired famous quotations from King and his oft-associated Jewish friend and fellow activist, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, encapsulate far better than I can the moment in which we live and the obvious consequences, for our outlook and our action, of emerging from promise to present, from foreshadowing to future:
“Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible.” -Heschel, The Prophets
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” –King