Parashat va’era ends a string of 59 Biblical chapters dedicated to a single precept: biological survival. The commandment to be fruitful and multiply takes up more than a fifth of the entire Torah narrative. But the preconditions for the fulfillment of this command do not exist at the time when the nascent Israelite clans enter the land of Canaan. The reality depicted in the narratives of the patriarchs and matriarchs is of a harsh land that does indeed devour its inhabitants. Ishmael and Isaac are exposed to near-death experiences, with the elder brother escaping Canaan to form a separate clan. Esau and Jacob are locked in mortal conflict that sends both brothers into exile, again with the elder brother forming a separate clan. The biological crisis that prevails despite an array of divine promises has a dual aspect: fertility and survival. Oddly, the conditions necessary for a solution to this crisis exist only in a state of exile and subjugation. Contrary to Joseph’s egotistical vision it is not a safe haven that he prepares for his family in the land of Goshen. It is instead a land of bondage as the newly arrived Israelites sink into slavery alongside the Egyptian masses that Joseph had dispossessed. In this dark world of oppression the Israelites achieve an almost magical state of fertility, though still lacking the social and religious cohesion that will ultimately assure survival.
At this new historical juncture it is no longer the quasi-mythical typology of the heroic individual, the matriarchs and patriarchs, that is the subject of the narrative. From this point forward the vehicle for Torah in this world is the people of Israel. When God declares: ve’hotzeiti et tsivotai et ami benei Israel, ‘I will bring out my masses, my people the children of Israel’ it is clear that the rescue of these descendants of Jacob is inextricably bound up with a critical mass that has become a nation. It is a people without a king, without land and without a set of laws. What unites this loose alliance of tribes is the stiff-necked determination to follow a historical mission of redemption and the capacity to endure God’s almost compulsive attention. What begins as the idea of redemption from slavery and exile will evolve to encompass social justice and messianism.
What are we to make of the divine sleight of hand that opens va’era with the startling claim that God’s true name, the tetragrammaton, was not known before the time of Moses? The Hebrew of Shemot 6.3 has no generally accepted interpretation. Va’era el Avraham, el Yitzchak, ve’el Ya’akov be’el shaday u’shemi hashem lo nodati lahem. I have attempted a literal translation which renders the verse as follows: “I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as el shaday / and my name ‘the name’ / I did not become known to them.” The Hebrew is awkward in two respects: First, u’shemi, ‘and my name’ is problematic because it lacks a preposition that would indicate whether it is attached to the beginning or the end of the phrase. Second, lo nodati, ‘I did not become known’ is in the niphal passive form and cannot as such take an object. Due to these difficulties most commentators have given the verse an allegorical reading, which has also been used to explain the substantive issues contained in it. What is most troubling about the verse is that the name, God’s ineffable name, appears in Genesis more than 100 times. The matriarchs and patriarchs hear and speak this name in conversation with their families and peers, and in dialogue with God.
Rav Elchanan Samet, of Yeshivat Haretzion, has provided an elegant summary of the commentary for this verse. You will find his article in the archives of the Yeshiva’s, http://www.haretzion.org/, along with a wealth of articles and learning opportunities. Samet’s conclusion follows the allegorical approach found in Ba’al Ha-Turim which explains the two names as separate attributes. El Shadday reveals the attribute of granting numerous offspring, of fertility, while the tetragrammaton reveals the attribute of settling them in the land. Samet quotes an article by Chagai Misgav-Moskowitz who attempts to provide precise scriptural support for this interpretation. An interesting perspective not quoted in the article is Cassuto’s comment that the religions of the ancient near east believed that the various names of their gods denoted specific powers, and even used multiple names for a single god when that god was attributed a number of powers.
Rav Samet’s view grants the patriarchs direct knowledge of the ineffable name, but places limits on their understanding. For Abraham the promises of numerous descendants and settlement in the land were just that: promises. For Abraham at one end of this historical continuum the promises must have appeared utopian, whereas for Moses at the other end the issue was to build a social and religious fabric that would cope with their realization. In this respect Abraham and Moses interacted with God on different planes. Moses inherited part of the world promised to his ancestor and was commanded to implement the other part. Although I find Rav Samet’s article compelling, I would like to suggest an alternate reading that attempts to explicate this paradoxical verse by a much closer context: the plagues.
The story of the plagues seems to tower over the exodus narrative in the manner that special effects now dominate our cultural landscape. Yet even the medieval poem at the core of every Seder Pesach, Dayyenu, whimsically asserts that the Jews can manage without such fireworks. In fact, it is not for the Israelites but for Pharaoh and his entourage, steeped in the culture of sorcery and the miraculous, that this theater of natural disasters is played out. The Jewish view of magic and conjuring is singularly hostile. The verdict of Tosefta Shabbat, chapters 7-8, is succinct: It’s a goyishe schtick. Under the conceptual rubric of darchei ha’emori, customs of the Emorites, the sages identify a variety of superstitious practices as typical of the most backward of Canaanite idolators. Such practices, apparently not uncommon among the Jewish populace of the second temple period, were by halachic edict forbidden to Jews, unless they contained some non-magical element of practical benefit to their general health and welfare. These prohibitions are based on Leviticus 19.26, lo tenachashu ve’lo te’onenu, ‘do not foretell events or divine a favorable time’ and additionally 19.31: al tifnu el ha’ovot ve’el ha’yiddonim, ‘do not consult mediums or those who speak in tongues’. 2 Chronicles 33.6 castigates King Menashe who reigned for 55 years during the first commonwealth: ‘He passed his sons through the fire in the valley of gehenna, practiced astrology, read omens, did sorcery, performed necromancy and conjured up spirits.’ God enables Moses to use magic but only to waken his enslaved brothers or to gain a hearing with Pharaoh. However, when Moses attempts to conjure water from a rock by striking it with a stick, he is forbidden to enter the land of Israel.
The logic of the plagues and the signs that lead up to and accompany them is that the world of the ancients was captivated by and subjugated to forces of the irrational . You want to make a good first impression? Take some common object like your walking stick and wave it around until the frogs and snakes come out to play in pools of blood. Now we all know that natural disasters are not tidy matters. Their effects linger for years. The miraculous thing about the Egyptian plagues is their impossibly short duration - a matter of days. When Moses and Aaron contest the foundations of Egyptian society, its reliance on slave labor, the symbolic message they send by their deft manipulation of natural forces is counter-intuitive. By keeping the plagues on a short leash, by flying them like kites, they are revealing the utter triviality of magic and the miraculous. One could almost say that the final suicidal dash made by Pharaoh’s army into the sea results from the fact that Moses has disarmed the Egyptian hierarchy of its symbolic weapons, of any assurance in its cultural norms. The process which began with the alarming, almost magical fertility of Pharaoh’s slaves must assuredly end with the death of Pharaoh himself.
Egyptian culture and religion were mesmerized by appearances. Pharaoh appears to be a god, the gods appear to conjure magical powers and the pyramids appear to have been built by demigods. It is a world where paralysis masquerades as transformation. The bonds of class are absolute, the rule of the Pharaoh is absolute, but this ironclad system is decorated with the finery of mystification and magic. Pharaoh’s notorious heart problems, his inability to crack the hardened shell at the seat of understanding, is another metaphor for the condition of his state. Pharaoh’s heart is weighted down by his position in Egyptian society: a godly king cannot learn a thing from his subjects even if they perform magic identical to that of his own counselors. The tip of the pyramid cannot glimpse its own foundation.
The new covenant established by Moses at Chorev cuts this Gordian knot. It establishes a radically activist faith: an entire people must rebel against their enslavement and pursue an arduous redemption. Yet this redemption is not an end in itself. It is not exclusively a transformation from bondage to freedom, from subjugation to sovereignty. The theme of social transformation, of historical development, however central to the Mosaic faith, is simply one of its working parts. Moses was given a transparent explanation of God’s ineffable name at the burning bush. The words eheye asher eheye, regardless of their possible nuances, confirm the obvious derivation of the name from the verb: to be. The God of everything that can ever exist, the God who is everything, is the One who spoke the name to Moses, the name of all being and all becoming.