Torah from Around the World #98

Parashat Va'Era (Exodus 6:2 – 9:35)

By: Rabbi Joel Oseran, Vice President, International Development, World Union for Progressive Judaism, Jerusalem

Our weekly Torah portion, Va'Era,  (Exodus 6:2 – 9:35) introduces the classic biblical account of the 10 plagues, pitting the God of the Hebrews (using the letters Yod, Heh, Vav, Hey or “Adonai” as we pronounce the letters) against Pharaoh and his sorcerers and magicians.  The first seven plagues are recounted in our Torah portion, highlighting the increasing level of drama built into the story – providing the reader with the growing appreciation that the God of the Hebrews has no competition, has no equal. 

While this grand arena of combat between Pharaoh and God naturally occupies the attention of the reader and Jewish commentators throughout the ages, we should not overlook a most profound teaching included at the very beginning of our weekly Torah reading regarding the different names for God and how these names provide insight and understanding regarding the very nature and meaning of God in our Jewish tradition. 

We read at the beginning of Parshat Va-era, “And God (Elohim) spoke to Moses and said to him,  I am the Lord (spelled Yod, Hey, Vav, Hey -YHVH). I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name, YHVH”. Let us also remember that in our last week’s Torah portion, Sh’mot, when Moses asks God what is His name so that when the Israelites ask Moses he could answer them,  God answers,  ”Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” (Exodus 3:13-14), commonly translated as “I will be that which I will be”. What do these different names of God really mean and what do they teach us about how Judaism relates to the nature of divinity?

Scholars suggest that the name for God which we have seen most commonly used thus far in the Torah, “Elohim”, is the generic form for any god and therefore also used for the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  The adjusted form, “El” is a derivative (singular form) and commonly appears as “El Elyon” or “El Shaddai” as in our Va’era text.  Beginning in the Book of Sh’mot, as seen in last week’s Torah reading and continuing in this week’s reading, the word “YHVH” (Lord) becomes the more customary form of God’s name.  “YHVH” is generally considered to be the personal name of God, though since the period of the Temple service we have lost the knowledge of how these 4 consonants (Tetragammaton) are to be pronounced. Consequently, the Masoretes who constructed the vocalization of the Biblical text, took the vowels from the Hebrew word Adonai (Master) and applied the same vowels to the letters YHVH. We therefore say, Adonai, when referring to YHVH to guard against mispronouncing the holy name of God. Interestingly, Christian writers during the 16th century, unaware of this Masoretic substitution of vowels, read the name YHVH as Jehovah – thus influencing future Christian Bible translations and religious movements (Jehovah's Witnesses).

A closer look at the letters YHVH provides greater understanding of how our Jewish tradition relates to the notion of the deity. Scholars suggest that the etymology of the word “YHVH” relates to the Hebrew root “Hey-Yod-Hey ה-י-ה”, Haya – a verbal form of “to be”. Thus, the name of God signifies not a subject (name) but a verbal form (action). YHVH (Adonai) becomes a causative force, an active agent for doing good, for bringing the nature of God's very essence to the world. 

Such an understanding of God's name YHVH corresponds precisely to the name God gives to Moses in Chapter 3 of Exodus when God refers to Himself as “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh – I will be that which I will be”. Once again, the connection to the verbal form “to be” grounds the name of God in a process of becoming, of change, of movement. God is not a static name, but a dynamic active agent. 

It is only a simple step from this understanding of YHVH to the theological system known as Predicate Theology – suggested decades ago by the contemporary Conservative Movement rabbi/scholar Harold Schulweis. Schulweis takes his cue from the verbal form of “to be” related to YHVH, and contends that we can best understand and appreciate the nature of Divinity by focusing attention not on the subjective nature of God, but on the actions (behavior) of God. Therefore, in place of the statement “God feeds the hungry” Predicate Theology would state: “Feeding the hungry is Godly.” In place of the statement “God heals the sick”, Predicate Theology would state: “Healing the sick is Godly.” We mortals actualize our stature as co-workers with the Divine by emulating the actions of the Divine which are, in themselves, God-like. 

Predicate Theology informs our thinking about God to reduce the abstractions we often face in relating to the notion of a transcendent deity. God tells Moses in our weekly Torah portion, “Say therefore to the Israelite people, I am the Lord (YHVH). I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My People and I will be your God…” (Exodus 6:6-7). Relating to a God who frees His people from bondage and who redeems His people with an outstretched arm may require a “leap of faith” many moderns may not be able to easily make. However, adjusting the same sentence in the format of Predicate Theology teaches us that when we engage in freeing the enslaved and redeeming the captive we are engaged in Godly work. We emulate the Divine, not by becoming God, but by doing Godly actions. 

May we learn from our weekly Torah reading that the measure of our faith and belief in God is not so much in the name(s) we call God but in our human capacity to commit ourselves to the very actions we associate with the Divine. As we continue to follow the journey of our People from slavery to freedom and from Egypt to the Promised Land, may we acknowledge the Divine hand which continues to shape and inspire our human response and commitment to Life. 

If you wish to discuss this Dvar Torah with Rabbi Oseran, please click here to contact him by email. 

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