Parashat Vaera: We are chosen, and we have work to do

BY RABBI TRACY NATHAN

By Rabbi Tracy Nathan 

Exodus is called the Book of Names in Hebrew (Shemot), and Parashat Vaera continues to remind us of the value of names. At the end of last week’s Torah reading, Pharaoh responds to God’s call to release the Israelites by making things worse for them. The Israelites felt betrayed and blamed Moses.  In the face of the unmoving Pharaoh and the despairing Israelites, Moses turns to God and asks: My Lord, why have you brought evil upon this people? Why did you send me?” (Exodus 5:22) 

God’s response opens up Parashat Vaera: “I am Hashem. I was known to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but by my name Hashem I was not known to them. (Exodus 6:2-3)

Now Hashem/yud hey vav hey has been used as a name for God throughout the stories of the patriarchs, so it seems what is new is an aspect of God for this time and place. And this Divine aspect seems necessary for freedom and redemption. 

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This name is revealed in a time when the spirits of the Israelites are crushed from physical and psychological oppression. They cannot hear that freedom is coming. And it is revealed now when Pharaoh has demonstrated the hardness of his heart and an unwillingness to be moved. It is revealed now when Moses describes himself as aral sefatayim – of foreskinned lips. His speech and confidence is hidden deep within him, blocked. If he can only convince God of this condition that he feels so deeply, he would be safe; he would not have to take the personal risk that comes with speaking truth to power and standing with an oppressed people. 

God reveals this name now when the culture and psychology of Mitzrayim has been internalized firmly within everyone: The Israelites, Pharaoh and Moses are all stuck. Terribly disturbing midrashic texts   make the metaphorical point quite clear. In describing the horror of life under Egypt, the Israelites are worked so hard and the oppression is such that babies were born to women at the building sites instead of at home, falling in between the bricks, mixing in with the mortar, and becoming part of the very building blocks themselves (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 48). How would it be possible to redeem a people who are suffocated and cemented into the very structures of their oppression? And what is it about this name of God that is a response to this kind of experience of being stuck and blocked? 

The name of God – yud hey vav hey – mysterious as it is, contains the verb “to be” in its imperfect form, something that is becoming and will be. These letters reveal God manifesting “what will be” and “what can be.” It is a name that reveals possibility. No longer will the status quo be all that one can expect. Change is possible. Redemption is possible. This is the Divine aspect that takes us from “what is” to what can be and what ought to be. 

So why does God choose the person who thinks he can’t speak and fears no one will listen to him? Couldn’t God find a braver, more eloquent leader for this important mission? This was a brilliant move and one that is more than a little frightening for the rest of us. Much as God did not let Moses off the hook, we are not let off the hook. We can’t leave the work of redemption to someone else who is more eloquent, smarter, more courageous, stronger, or someone who has more time. Moses tried that four times with God but God said no, I choose you. 

Moses is sent out before he is ready because the time is now. It could not wait for coaching in public speaking. He would need to learn on the job. Once God says, “I am the God of Possibility” and I will liberate you and redeem you, we can no longer say that I’ve never been a leader, I’ve never been a good speaker, I’ve never been. … I am the God of becoming, of unsticking and unblocking persons. We no longer need to accept unjust systems as if they have always been and will always be. I am the God of possibility and change – of persons and systems and nations. And I choose you. Let’s get to work.

Rabbi Tracy Nathan is a teacher at Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.