Rabbi Jack Luxemburg | Temple Beth Ami, Maryland, USA
The Torah portion, Va’era, presents a profound paradigm shift, the revelation of a divine name/attribute heretofore unknown, even to our Patriarchs and Matriarchs:
“God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am YHVH. I appeared (Va’era) to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name YHVH.” (Exodus 6:2-3)
According to Rashi, the patriarchs and matriarchs experienced God as the power to make promises as implied by the name, El Shaddai.
באל שדי BY THE NAME OF GOD ALMIGHTY — I made certain promises to them and in the case of all of these I said unto them, “I am God Almighty”. (Rashi on Ex. 6:2)
However, while the promises were made, they were not completely fulfilled.
ושמי ה׳ לא נודעתי להם BUT BY MY NAME THE LORD WAS I NOT KNOWN TO THEM — It is not written here לא הודעתי [My name the Lord] I did not make known to them, but לא נודעתי [by My name, the Lord], was I not known [unto them] — i. e. I was not recognized by them in My attribute of “keeping faith”, by reason of which My name is calledה׳ , which denotes that I am certain to substantiate My promise, for, indeed, I made promises to them but did not fulfill them [during their lifetime]. (Rashi on Exodus 6:3)
Rashi references the promises made regarding possession of the land of Canaan, acknowledging, however, that no Patriarch/Matriarch became a settled “possessor” of the land, but remained a “sojourner”. Rashi concludes his commentary by having God remark to Moses :
So you see, I have made certain vows to them and have not yet fulfilled them. (Rashi on Ex. 6:4)
In contrast, Moses and his generation are about to experience the aspect of divinity that makes for the fulfillment of covenantal promise. That attribute, implied by the god-name YHVH, will be made known to Moses and all Israel.
This is a monumental paradigm shift. With emphasis on covenantal fulfillment, God makes known to all the attribute of the divine that fulfills promises made in the past, doing so in the present for the sake of the future. But, like any revolutionary idea, it was not easily absorbed. Even Moses, with his capacity to apprehend the divine, needs more than one encounter with God in order to comprehend. And when he presents this new understanding of the divine and the accompanying assurance of pending liberation, it seems to be beyond the ability our ancestors to grasp, let alone embrace.
“But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.” (Exodus 6:9)
The Hebrew, kotzer ruach describes the diminished spirit of our ancestors that contributed to their inability to embrace the message that Moses brought them. Biblical commentator, Ohr HaChaim (Chayim ibn Attar, 18th C.), observes:
מקצר רוח, for it did not appear believable to their present state of mind, so that their heart could not assimilate such a promise. (Ohr HaChaim on Ex. 6:9)
He equates kotzer ruach with a diminished spirt that leads to narrow mindedness, limited understanding and impatience. Our ancestors are portrayed as having lost faith in the ancient promise, incapable of grasping the present moment of liberation, too impatient to embrace the message of hope for the future.
It sounds all too familiar to us as we live through a period of unprecedented political turmoil, economic dislocation and a severe crisis in public health. Who of us has not had our own moments of kotzer ruach, our spirits diminished and exhausted, our faith tested, and our beliefs challenged? And yet, we have also witnessed examples of heroic caring, remarkable scientific ingenuity, extraordinary generosity, and exceptional compassion. Hopefully, we have not narrowed our mindfulness. Or lost our capacity to appreciate and understand the selflessness of those who do sacred work in these difficult times. Or become impatient with the people around us, even if the situation has frayed our patience and our calm.
We might do well to consider the following:
Pain and sorrow may challenge our faith, but courage to persevere in the face of adversity is a miracle. As long as there is compassion in the human heart and the will to act on a virtue both human and divine, there is still reason to believe. (Rabbi’s Manual, Rabbinical Assembly, pg. E-36)
Va’era is a portion full of inspiring revelation, ancient promises fulfilled and the beginning of our people’s liberation. It is also is a cautionary passage of Torah. It reminds us how important it is, especially in times of stress, to maintain our openness to new understanding and appreciation, maintain our patience and engagement with the present in order to secure the future we desire, and to know that there is sanctity and divinity in kindness and compassion shared. We learn that it is important to do what we can to maintain an expansiveness of the spirit so we can perceive the presence of the holy around us when we need it most, and with that awareness, live in hope that God’s promise freedom, health and wellbeing will be fulfilled for us, for all Israel and all the world.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ).