Va-eira: Learning New Names

Here’s my Dvar Torah for last week’s Torah portion, Va-eira, followed by a beautiful Davar Acher that Neil Sukonik, one of the Vice Presidents of Beth David, offered at Friday Night services.  To receive this week’s Dvar Torah by email, you can sign up to receive Ten Minutes of Torah.

Learning New Names, by Rabbi Beth Kalisch

How well did our spiritual ancestors actually know God? At the beginning of our Torah portion, Va-eira, God seems to suggest the relationship wasn’t quite as intimate as we would have thought.

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

The patriarchs had known God by one name, but apparently, not by the name through which God will be known to Moses, to the Israelites in the later books of the Bible, or to Jews today. It’s a surprising statement. The patriarchs, after all, are understood by Jewish tradition to have been particularly intimate with God. In the Amidah prayer, we invoke their names when we address God – God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob – precisely because of the strength of their relationships with God. And now, we find out that they didn’t even know one of God’s most important names?

If we open up the Book of Genesis, we find things a little more complicated than our verse might suggest on its surface. The name Eternal appears all over Genesis; the patriarchs are quite familiar with Eternal as a name of God. Abraham refers to God as Eternal when directly addressing God (see, for example, Genesis 15:2) and when speaking to others about God (Genesis 14:22). Sarah also uses the name Eternal when she speaks to Abraham about God (Genesis 16:2). And Isaac and Jacob use the name as well (See, for example, Genesis 26:25 and Genesis 28:16).

But even if the patriarchs do know the name, what they don’t know seems to be even deeper. Both medieval and contemporary scholars agree that the verse is not referring simply to “Eternal” as a name of God, but to the aspect of God’s essence signified by that name. “In the ancient Near Eastern world names in general, and the name of a god in particular . . . were expressive of character, or attributes . . .” explains the 20th century scholar Nahum M. Sarna.1 Rashi, the 11th century sage, paraphrases the meaning to be: “They were not familiar with Me in My attribute of “keeping faith,” which is represented by the name Eternal.” (Rashi, commentary on Exodus 6:3)

In other words, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob knew God – and they even knew the same names for God that Moses knew – but they had never really experienced the side of God that Moses is about to experience, the God who intervenes in history and frees slaves from oppression. Even though God told Abraham that his descendants would one day be enslaved, but that God would free them (Genesis 15:13-14) Abraham never experienced or witnessed that aspect of God’s power. Neither did Isaac, Jacob, or anyone else who lived before Moses.

It’s a provocative teaching. The idea of God as redeemer, freer of slaves, and splitter of seas, is central to biblical and later Jewish theology. If the patriarchs’ knowledge of God did not include any familiarity with this aspect of God, did they really know God well at all?

Curiously, Jewish tradition never doubts that they did. We continue to pray in their names. Their knowledge of God might have been incomplete, but it was still just as deep. And to me, that’s the most interesting part of this discussion: the understanding that knowing God fully is not a prerequisite to knowing God well, because God was still emerging within the story of our Torah.

It’s a lesson that seems like such an important one to remember for our relationships with other human beings, created as we are in the image of God. To know another person is in many ways akin to knowing God. We can know someone very deeply, but we cannot ever fully, completely know them, or be fully known ourselves – not so much because we are mysteries, with secrets locked away, but because there is so much potential for growth and change within us.

We often think of ourselves – our identities, our personalities, our strengths and weaknesses, our yearnings – as so static and so concrete. We give ourselves and others labels and think of them as describing who someone really is. We think our friends are only what we’ve seen of them; we think we know what choices our partner will make or what our children are capable of. But to be created in the image of God means to contain that same potential for unexpected growth and change. Even when we know someone very well, we can still be surprised by new qualities, new aspects of them that emerge in different circumstances. Even generations into the relationship, we can still reveal a new name.

And so is it true for God, still in our day: what we have experienced of God in our lifetime is not the fullness of what we might yet experience. Who knows what names we might still learn? And who knows what the next generation might be privileged to learn about God’s Presence – getting a closer glimpse, perhaps, than we have at any name we have ever experienced.

1. Nahum M. Sarna, commentary, The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus (Philadelphia: JPS, 1991), p.31

Davar Acher by Neil Sukonik

In this week’s D’Var Torah Rabbi Kalisch contemplates the depth of the relationship with God that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had as compared to Moses.  Specifically, with less knowledge of all of God’s names and the full powers of God, did they really know him? And why did God reveal these to Moses and not before?  The D’var extends its discussion to the various depths of relationships among ourselves as we are created in God’s image. It discusses the significance and importance of continuingly evolving relationships as we all grow and evolve ourselves, and that this is the more pertinent point being made within the Torah portion than that somehow Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were in any way lesser in God’s view than Moses because God had not chosen to fully reveal himself to them.

As another perspective of this week’s Torah portion, Va-eira, I would like to offer this D’var Acher (another perspective) and discuss why “God spoke to Moses and said to him: “I am the Eternal [YHVH]. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name YHVH” (Exodus 6:2-3). Why did God choose to reveal His additional self and additional powers to Moses and not to those before him?

In relationships, what we are willing to reveal about ourselves often occurs as much by circumstances as for any other reason.  With Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, God needed only to reveal as much of Himself as necessary for them to reaffirm their belief in Him based on their circumstances.  They were looking for God to reaffirm his existence and divine goodness for their personal needs, however Moses’ needs were on behalf of an entire Jewish people first to be freed from slavery and then to be lead on a long journey across the desert to the Promised Land.  Moses had the burden of an entire people whose doubts were surfacing in addition to his own uncertainty that was beginning to emerge. Moses needed more than merely a reaffirmation of God’s existence and goodness.  Moses needed to be shown a deeper vision of God based on the pressure he was under and the difficulties he was facing on behalf of the Jewish people and for himself.  It can be argued that both of these extended beyond than those of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Moses needed to be shown a more complete God because he was enduring a deeper crisis.

Much as the difficult circumstances in which Moses found himself created the need for God to reveal a deeper Self, so do circumstances in people’s lives create the need for others to reveal a deeper side of themselves. The reason for a greater part of ourselves to be revealed is often caused by another’s personal crisis or difficulties being encountered.  In others’ times of need, who among us has not opened our hearts by extending compassion, empathy, or sympathy beyond what we typically reveal? Who among us has not stuck our neck out for someone who desperately needed someone to come to their aid?  It is our compassion as human beings, much like the compassionate God in whose image we are made, that compels us to open the deepest sides of ourselves to help another in need. What the contrast between how much God revealed of Himself to Moses as compared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob teaches us is not something negative regarding their lack of complete knowledge of God as compared to Moses. Rather, it is an example of a compassionate God revealing a deeper part of Himself when a greater need arose. And it shows us, as being created in God’s image, that it is both appropriate and desirable to reveal a deeper more complete part of ourselves when others need us whether for strength, encouragement, or just to have someone to lean on in their time of need.

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