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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" (Shemot 6:3). 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. Until this point in human history, God had not acted in a way that manifested this aspect of who God is.
What is it that this name signifies? According to Rashi, the name of God represents truth. Now will begin the process whereby God will demonstrate God's trustworthiness, where God will now make true the promise to the forefathers - to give them the land of Israel. In contrast, Ramban understands that this name refers to God's transcendence over nature, a God who has power over the natural world and the laws of nature. It was now, in the process of the Exodus, that God made manifest God's self through miracles and plagues that violated the natural order and that demonstrated God's ultimate power.
The need to know God's name, and thus get a glimpse into God's nature, is a theme that runs through the process of the Exodus. At the burning bush, Moshe assumes that Benei Yisrael will ask him for God's name, and asks God to reveal this to him. When Moshe and Aharon appear before Pharaoh, what is his very first response? "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).
This demand is not just coming from below. Indeed, again and again, plague after plague, we are told that the purpose of these miraculous events was for the Egyptians to know God's name:
"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)
"And thus will you know that I am YHVH in the midst of the land" (8:18)
The connection of the makkot with knowing God's name is strong evidence to Ramban's explanation that this name indicates what is demonstrated in the makkot: God's power and God's operating outside of and over nature.
A close reading of the verses, however, shows that not all the makkot demonstrated the same thing. Malbim shows that the makkot fall into three groups of three, as is reflected in the mnemonic of the hagaddah - d'zakh, adash, bi'achav.
The first group is introduced with "you will know that I am YHVH". God exists, and is powerful. Thus the Nile - the god of Egypt - is smitten with blood and frogs. The third in each group - in this case the lice - was not to teach a lesson, but only a makkah, a punishment for the Egyptians' enslavement of Benei Yisrael.
Following this, the second group is 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. This is a radical theological idea: an infinite God can care about and relate to finite people. As this was the particular emphasis of this plague, 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. This, then, is Ramban's point that God is all-powerful, not constrained by the laws of nature, and operating outside of and over nature.
This is how the makkot were framed for Pharaoh and for the Egyptians. Of course, the lesson was not only for them. As God's announcement of God's name in the opening of our parasha makes clear, Israel also does not yet know God by who God is. And this is a situation which must be rectified.
Consider God's promise of what he will do for the people. First we are told that Moshe must "say to Benei Yisrael that I am YHVH". We are then presented with a powerful list of verbs of v'hotzeitivi'hitzalti, v'ga'aliti, v'lakachti (6:6-7)- I will take [them out of Egypt], I will save [them from their servitude], I will redeem [them with an outstretched arm], and I will take [them to me as a people]. These verbs in quick succession are building to a climax, to the vi'heiveiti verb, I will bring them into the land, the ultimate fulfillment of the promise. But before that climax can be achieved, the following verse interupts:
And you shall know that I am YHVH who takes you out from the burden of Egypt (6:7)
The message is clear. What is necessary before entering the land, before the climactic vi'heiveiti, is this knowledge of God's name, this knowing of God. The culmination of the Exodus is entering the land. And 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 parasha 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, yes to Egypt, but perhaps primarily to Bnei Yisrael: "that you shall tell... and you will know". 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.
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 is, to understand God through God's action, to know God directly, to know God's name. It was only then that we could live up to God's mission, could live a life as God's people, in the Land of Israel.
God's use of God's name 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 through 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. This is certainly true 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.