Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Friday, December 31, 2010

Walk Article

BOOK of NAMES

Va'era-5771

Rabbi David Walk

 

            Traditionally Jews have called the five books in our Torah by the first significant word in each volume.  There are secondary names for each book which describe the content, but these names are ignored or even unknown to most Jews.  So, we call the tome that we began last week, Shmot or names.  However, I believe that this appellation is more significant than just the coincidence that this is the second word in the work.  Last week names are prominent in the Torah reading.  We repeat the names of all the tribes, and Moshe asks God what name he should use when referring to the Deity who sent him to redeem the Jews.  Later in parshat Ki Tisa (Exodus 33:6-7), God informs Moshe of the 13 Attributes which describe God's relationship with mankind.  These 13 are really more names for God.   So, the concept of names is a major sub-topic in this book, known mostly for the story of the redemption.  But I think the most important discussion of names takes place right at the beginning of this week's Torah reading.

            Let's set the scene.   After Moshe's first audience with Pharaoh, the Egyptian monarch has increased the work load for the Jewish slaves.  Moshe is very disappointed at the apparent failure and angrily accuses God of making things worse for the suffering Jews, he said: "O Lord! Why have You harmed this people? Why have You sent me?  Since I have come to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has harmed this people, and You have not saved Your people (Exodus 5:22-23)."  God then explains to Moshe that the redemption process is just beginning and that he shouldn't lose hope.   However the introduction to this explanation contains a philosophic approach to the names of God.   God spoke to Moses, and He said to him, "I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob with [the name] Almighty God, but [with] My name YHWH, I did not become known to them (Ibid 6:2-3).    Obviously the first question which jumps out at us is:  What's the meaning of the different names?  What is significant about the fact that the Patriarchs experienced God with different terms than the generation of Egypt?  The Sforno (Rabbi Ovadiah ben Ya'akov Sforno, 1470-1550) presents, perhaps the most straight forward approach.  He explains that the name Almighty God (E-l Sh-adai) implies the promise of future events, without the Patriarchs themselves observing their fulfillment.  On the other hand, the Tetragrammaton (the four letter name, which we never pronounce) is the essential name of God, and represents the eternal nature of the Deity, who is always there and always fulfills promises.  Moshe will get to live through the fruition of the many assurances made by God to the Patriarchs.  This experience will, therefore, give greater insights into the nature of God than the fathers of our people ever had. 

            There is a secondary problem in the verse.  We've just discussed the different names used to refer to God, but what about the different verbs utilized in the verse?  What's the difference between God appearing and God being known?  When God appears to someone, it is a passive event for the observer.  Even though our ancestors earned these encounters with God, by their efforts to spread the concept of ethical monotheism, nevertheless their familiarity with God was limited.  Only in the generation of the exodus from Egypt is the greatness of God's power manifest in the world to the extent that these participants in these momentous events achieve the intimacy described by the Torah as knowledge.

            There's a common misconception about the biblical term yadah or know.  Often people assume that this is used as a euphemism for sexual relations, especially in Genesis.  However I strongly believe that it connotes a deep spiritual or intellectual connection, rather than a sensual one.  The Torah is teaching us that the only ones who really know each other are partners in a true soul mate marriage.  The rest of us may recognize people, but don't have a profound awareness of who they really are.  How many times are we surprised or disappointed by the behavior of a friend or acquaintance?  I don't think that happens very much to soul mates. 

            The Jews in Egypt are about to experience events so amazing that they gain a hitherto fore unknown intimacy with the Creator.  The miracles and wonders of the exodus would afford a glimpse into the workings of the Divine, which can only be described as knowing God.  This doesn't mean that the enslaved Jews of Egypt were greater than the Patriarchs in any way other than the fact that they were privileged to see God at work.

            This idea is extremely important.  For 2,000 years pious and righteous Jews proclaimed with tears and conviction:  Next year in Jerusalem!  Observant Jews prayed with devotion:  Sound the great shofar for our freedom; raise a banner to gather our exiles, and bring us together from the four corners of the earth into our land.  How many of our ancestors got to visit Jerusalem?  How many of us?  It was no coincidence that when the Ethiopians were landing at Lod, there were people blowing shofars.  We are living to see the fulfillment of many Biblical prophecies.  It seems that our generation has a lot in common with that generation in Egypt.  Both have gone from disaster to glory.

            I believe that it's very important to see ourselves in the text when we read the Torah.  This week I think that it's easier than usual.  So, first let's look for ourselves in the text, and then let's look for God around us.  We've seen more prophecies fulfilled than any generation since Egypt.  Why do we have so much trouble seeing God in these events?  It's time to recognize and then know God.

            I just don't get it.  Why do so many Jews both on the right and the left refuse to see and know that God is guiding the events of our times?  I guess it explains the behavior of the Jews in the desert.  We're being offered redemption, and we're complaining about the accomadations.  



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