Friday, January 15, 2010

A Thought on the Parsha

Va'era opens with a powerful, yet quizzical, declaration - "And God spoke to Moshe and said to him: I am God. And I appeared to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov with El-Shaddai, but by my name God (YHVH) I was not known to them." All the commentators are troubled, for certainly God used his name, YHVH, when he appeared to the forefathers. Rashi and Ramban both respond that while God used this name, God had not demonstrated it, God had not acted in a way that manifested this aspect of who God is. According to Rashi, this name indicates the fulfillment of the divine promise - one that would only occur later when the People of Israel took possession of the Land of Israel. Ramban understands that this name refers to God working outside of nature. It was only through the ten plagues did God manifest God's self through miracles that were outside of the natural order.

However, the focus on the meaning of the name YHVH should not distract us from the major theme of this opening section, a theme that runs throughout the ten plagues - the need to know the name of God. Consider Pharaoh's first response to Moshe and Aharon - "Who is YHVH that I should listen to his voice to send out Israel. I do not know YHVH and, even Israel I will not send out. (Ex. 5:2). What is God's response:

"And Egypt will know that I am YHVH when I stretch out My hand over Egypt" (7:5)
"So says God, with this shall you know that I am YHVH" (7:17)
"And thus will you know that I am YHVH in the midst of the land" (8:18)

This is the framing of the makkot for Pharaoh and for the Egyptians. Of course, the lesson was not only for them. As our parsha makes clear in the opening, Israel as well does not yet know God by who God is. Thus, the list of verbs of v'hotzeiti, vi'hitzalti, v'ga'aliti, v'liakachti - I will take out, I will save, I will redeem, I will take - is interrupted before its climax - vi'heiveiti, I will bring, with the verse:

"And you shall know that I am YHVH who takes you out from the burden of Egypt"(6:7)

This is necessary before entering the land, and as a prerequisite for entering the land. The culmination of the Exodus is God's revealing God's self to Israel, and Israel's knowing God directly - knowing the name of God. It is thus that next week's parsha opens with a declaration that the lesson of the makkot is for Israel as well:

"In order that you shall tell over in the ears of your children and children's children how I made a mockery of Egypt and the signs that I put in their midst, and you will know that I am YHVH" (7:2)

The message is clear. The makkot were not just (or even primarily) to punish the Egyptians - they were to demonstrate who God was, both to Mitzrayim and to Bnei Yisrael. It is thus worth noting that the Torah does not primarily refer to the plagues as makkot - smitings, but as moftim and otot - signs and wonders, phenomena that are meant to teach and to demonstrate.

What, specifically, did they demonstrate? Malbim, in his commentary, shows that the makkot fall into three groups of three, as we say in the hagaddah - dzakh, adash, bi'achav. The first group was introduced with "you will know that I am YHVH". God exists, and is powerful. Thus the Nile - to god of Egypt - is smitten with blood and frogs. The third in each group - in this case the lice - was not an ot, was not to teach a lesson, but only a makkah. Following this, the second group was introduced by "You shall know that I am God in the midst of the land" (8:18). This group demonstrated that an infinite God could be involved in the finite world, and could care about its particulars. God was "in the midst of the land" and could single out a particular nation - Israel - and give it direct providence. Thus, it was only in this group that the Torah states that God made a distinction between the cattle of Bnei Yisrael and those of the Egyptians, and Moshe and Aharon underscored this point when they framed these makkot to Pharaoh. Finally, the last group was introduced with "And you will know that there is none like Me in all the land" (9:15) - that God is all-powerful. It is thus regarding these last makkot that the Torah emphasizes that there had never been anything like them in all of recorded history.

The makkot thus served to teach lessons about God to Mitzrayim and to Bnei Yisrael. It was through understanding their significance, that we - in this formative moment in history- began to know God, to get a glimpse of who God, to understand God through God's action, to know him directly, to know God's name.

God's use of the name YHVH with the forefathers had not been sufficient, because God had not yet manifested this name through action. What we say is important, but ultimately, it is what we do that matters, and it is throught our actions that we are ultimately known. "Lo hamidrash hu ha'ikkar ela ha'ma'aseh." (Avot 1:17). "It is not the expounding that is the most important" - that will best teach our values and our commitments and demonstrate who we are, "but rather the action." Actions speak louder than words.

However, because action is such a powerful communicator, we cannot let it stand on its own. In our own lives, we often do not bother to give a framing to the actions that we do, and their import is often lost. Especially when it comes time to punish - to give figurative makkot. A major challenge of parenting is how to punish so that children do not just remember the punishment, the figurative makkot, but that they learn the lessons that we are trying to impart. Even when the action is framed, the framing is often lost - just as many people only know of the makkot and overlook the explicit framing in the Torah. We must rise to this challenge. We must take the time and effort to clearly frame our actions at all times, but in particular when power, force, and authority are involved. It is quite easy for the wrong lessons to be learned. We must make it clear what the lessons are, why we are acting as we are. If we do this in our parenting, then our children will truly internalize the values that we want them to learn, and will know our name, will understand more deeply and intimately who we are, and will truly know us.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.