24/25 Jan: Vaera: Shabbat comes in 4:20 pm, ends 5:28 pm
This week’s parashah begins with a statement that, on its face, appears to be untrue: ‘God spoke to Moses and said to him: “I am Hashem [the four-letter, ineffable name of God]. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name Hashem.”’ (Exodus 6:2-3) This is a difficult statement because we have seen God declare ‘I am Hashem’ to the patriarchs directly. So what could God mean by the puzzling statement ‘I did no make Myself known to them by My name Hashem’?
Most of our medieval commentators read this statement as meaning that the patriarchs did not know the Divine according to the attributes of the ineffable name. However, the commentators cannot agree on which attributes of God are found in this ineffable name. Ramban suggests that the patriarchs experienced God as working through nature; this, says Ramban, is God acting as ‘El Shaddai’, but the God of miracles is known by the ineffable name. Rashi claims that ‘El Shaddai’ is the God of promises made and the ineffable name describes the God of promises fulfilled.
There is no consensus on the interaction with humanity that is best understood using the ineffable name of God. Whatever it is, according to this text, it is experienced by Moses and not by the patriarchs. It is also, interestingly, the name that is used in the second account of Creation (the Adam and Eve story), but not in the first account (in which the world is created orderly, day by day, and declared ‘good’). I wonder if God’s ineffable name represents the complex nature of God’s interactions with humanity. The patriarchs were men of pure faith, who followed God and were rewarded in turn; their relationships with the Holy One were simpler than Moses’s. Moses has narrowly escaped slavery, and then fled Egypt after a violent outburst at a slavedriver. His relationship with the Divine is messy, and so are the relationships of those beginning life in slavery. So too, in the second account of Creation, God’s relationship with the world is messy: Adam is shaped from clay, and Eve from Adam’s rib, and the first people are forced to leave the Garden of Eden and interact with the Divine in an imperfect reality. This imperfection in relationship, this messiness, this complexity – perhaps that is precisely why the ineffable name of God is, indeed, ineffable.
Rabbi Natasha Mann
So in terms of a punishment for the people of Noah’s time, the flood and the destruction of all living things does seem a bit extreme. One of my rabbis, Rabbi Brad Artson argues, that is exactly the point the Torah is trying to make.
Destruction, even when it comes from the God who is “slow to anger and abounding in kindness” bursts beyond any manageable or fair limitations. Even punishments, originally intended to be measured and reasonable, provoke unanticipated suffering and hardship.
Rabbi Paul Arberman.
Abraham Joshua Heschel believed that Adam’s sin was primarily in hiding from God and from himself. This is not, in Heschel’s eyes, an abstract idea; we all hide from God and from ourselves. Heschel expresses it thus in the third verse of his poem I and Thou:
” Often I glimpse Myself in everyone’s form,
hear My own speech – a distant, quiet voice – in people’s weeping,
as if under millions of masks My face would lie hidden. ”
Heschel is describing a personal experience in which he has hidden from himelf, his essence absorbed within society. His face is masked, hidden from view, making the idea to “know thyself” impossible.
I’m not sure why we hide from ourselves so well when we are young — or perhaps we just don’t take the time to think through who we are — but I can say definitively, that one of the great joys of getting older is the unmasking — getting to know yourself — what you actually enjoy or don’t enjoy doing.
Written by Rabbi Paul Arberman