Finding the Covenant | Parashat Va’Era

Parashat Va’Era (Exodus 6:2–9:35) continues God’s revelation to Moses begun at the Burning Bush.

The parasha opens with what, for the Torah, is a lengthy monologue (6:2-6:8), in which God tells Moses six distinct things:

  1. God distinguishes this revelation, saying that God appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob under the aspect of El Shaddai, while now God is appearing to Moses as Adonai, a name the reader recognizes immediately is of profound significance (6:3).
  2. God had established the covenant with the forefathers (6:4).
  3. God, having seen the sufferings of the enslaved Israelites, has now remembered the covenant (6:5).
  4. In recalling the ancestral covenant, God tells Moses to announce that God will now liberate the Israelites through dramatic means (6:6).
  5. God will take the Israelites as God’s people, and Adonai will be their God (6:7).
  6. God commits to returning the Israelites to the land God had sworn to the forefathers by means of the original covenant.

Although liberating the enslaved Israelites is God’s main concern here, it is framed by the covenantal relationship that existed between God and the forefathers. Because of that original covenant, God, now known under a more powerful name, will re-enter history and free the descendants of the founders of the people.

God tells Moses, essentially, I am going to be known more deeply to you and by extension to the Israelites than I was to Abraham. Nevertheless, I am able come to you as Adonai because I appeared to Abraham as El Shaddai. The lesser aspect causally precedes the greater, and creates continuity.

So what is the covenant? What is the covenant to us as 21st century Liberal Jews?

“Covenant” is a synonym for “contract.” It denotes terms between two or more parties, the mutual fulfillment of which defines the relationship between the parties. God initially enters into such a relationship with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, which then is re-articulated in our parasha. This covenant assures divine protection of the patriarchs.  That promise is continued in our parashaa with the dramatic promise of liberation from slavery. Protection is more or less God’s side of the covenant.

The Israelite side of the covenant? If we read down a bit after the liberation, to chapter 19, God poetically reminds the Israelites that God bore them out of Egypt on eagles’ wings (19:4). There God says, “…if you will obey me faithfully and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all the peoples. (19:5).”

In short, if we do mitzvot, which will come shortly in the form of the Ten Commandments, God will protect us, and because of that, God will hold us unique among all the nations.

Simple enough, right?

Well, our problem is that it’s not so simple. On God’s side, we modern Jews have become uncomfortable with the promise of God’s protection. No explanation of the Shoah can avoid the problem of God’s absence, God’s failure to protect.

Further, we have become ambivalent about both the very notion of obedience to God, and as well what exactly we are supposed to obey. For almost two centuries, we Liberal Jews have not taken the Torah literally, though we do take it seriously.

This dual ambivalence, God’s protection and what we are to obey, raises the question: If we have doubts on both sides of the covenantal equation, does it make sense for a Liberal Jew today to speak of the existence of a covenant between us and God?

For many years I’ve thought that we Jews hold to a number of dogmas, aspects of the Jewish self-understanding that are constitutive. We may have differing notions as to how to unpack these dogmas, but we agree that they form the bedrock of Judaism. Among these dogmas are: God, creation, revelation, redemption, the primacy of ethics.

Covenant is one of these dogmas.

I’d like to use the beginning of this week’s parasha to suggest a way for us to think about covenant.

God’s first words to Moses indicate that El Shaddai is to be replaced with Adonai, a different and deeper aspect of the divine. Thus the covenant with the patriarchs is different from the covenant to be struck with Moses and the Israelites. It has changed in certain ways, and would, arguably, continue changing. That the text tells us clearly. So how does the covenant change for us?

For us, the center of the divine-human relationship cannot be seen to be same as, say, two centuries ago. In our time, we understand it as being more remote, less an immediate presence in our history. Therefore we need, as it were, to reach out to God, to understand God’s nature as clearly as our mind allows.

As men and women created in the divine image, we need to see into ourselves in order to understand the transcendent God. In other words, we need to think reflexively about God. What can we say God expects of us in a moment in time? What does God have to teach us in this moment in time? How, indeed, do we learn from God and learn what to give back to God?

At the basic level, this thinking requires that we engage with the texts of our tradition, beginning with the Torah. The meaning of covenantal reciprocity between us and God is embedded in the pages of our texts. The struggle for meaning between God and us resides in the challenge raised in every page of the Torah.

The uncertainties of our age have puzzled me for a very long time. Certainty would be better, but it is not our situation. But this does not mean we are bereft of sources and help. We belong to an ancient tradition that’s asked abundant questions.

Thus, I say that if we wish to continue feeling a part of the tradition and the covenant that tradition claims for its people, the way to do this is to study the tradition. The very act of study creates meaning. The act of studying Jewish text creates Jewish meaning, which ties the student to God. Our understanding may change, changing the nature of the bond. But that there is a bond, a covenant of mutuality, that persists.


About the Author:

Rabbi Phil Cohen Ph.D., received his ordination from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City.  He earned a Ph.D. in Jewish thought from Brandeis University, and Master of Fine Arts degree from Spalding University in Louisville.

Rabbi Cohen is married to Betsy Gamburg and is Elly’s, and Talia’s father, and Ava Ruth’s saba.

He is a strong advocate of Israel, loves theology, Bible, Jewish History, exploring interfaith relations, and reading and writing fiction.  He completed his first novel, Desolation Row: A Nick Bones mystery, which, by its title, suggests another might be on the way. You can also listen to him here, on the Seekers of Meaning podcast of Jewish Sacred Aging, speaking about Israel’s “nation/state” law.

Rabbi Cohen resides in Greensboro, North Carolina, with Betsy and Maggy, their rescued greyhound, and travels regularly to Albany, Georgia, where he serves as rabbi for Temple B’nai Israel.


The above Torah from Around the World first appeared in 2017 as #255 in the series.

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