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Kehilla Israel Rabbi Emeritus
Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D.
rabbireuben@ourKI.org

 

Click here to read Rabbi Reuben's new book A Year with Mordecai Kaplan: Wisdom on the Weekly Torah Portion

Va-’era’ - Mercy

 

Exodus 6:2 - 9:35

 “God spoke to Moses and said to him, ‘I am Adonai.’” - Exodus 6:2

P’shat – Explanation

In this passage, God first speaks to Moses using the name “Elohim.” The Torah text says, “God (Elohim) spoke to Moses and said to him, I am Adonai,” changing to the four-letter name comprised of yud, hay, vav, hay that Jewish tradition always considered the most personal and intimate of God’s names. 

Throughout the Torah, a variety of different names are used for God, starting with “Elohim” in the very first sentence of Genesis, along with “El,” “El Shaddai,” “El Elyon,” and others.  It is here in chapter six of Exodus that God first commands Moses to use this four-letter name, “Adonai,” when promising the Israelites that God intends to redeem them from the slavery of Egypt: In Exodus 6:6 God tells Moses, “Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am Adonai. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage.”

What accounts for the changes in God’s name? According to rabbinic tradition God uses the name Elohim to signal the attribute of justice and Adonai now to signal the attribute of mercy.  God uses Elohim in the beginning of the passage, perhaps to convey God’s earlier judgment of Moses (in Exodus 5:22) for having lost faith in God’s redeeming power and having accused God of bringing harm to the Israelites. God then switches to using Adonai from now on to signal that instead God will rely on the qualities of compassion and mercy so that both Moses and the Israelites will be consistently forgiven for their faithlessness from this moment on to the moment some forty years hence when they finally arrive at the borders of the Promised Land. Indeed, from this moment on, God will only use the name Adonai—signifying that mercy or compassion will prevail and the Israelites will experience the miraculous redemption from slavery to freedom. That is why the midrash in Exodus Rabbah 3:6 quotes God as saying, “I am known according to my actions. When I judge the creatures I am Elohim, and when I have mercy with My word, I am Adonai.”  The phrase, “I am Adonai,” and not “I am Elohim” appears throughout the rest of the Torah, especially in conjunction with the promulgation of laws and commandments, as a way of emphasizing that a given law or mitzvah comes directly from God and flows from God’s mercy and compassion for the welfare of God’s people.

The intimacy of this name may also be why God uses it to declare, “I Adonai am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage” in Exodus 20:2 at the start of the Ten Commandments. This opening statement is core to the most powerful, watershed moment in all of Jewish history and the Ten Commandments have formed the foundation of all Western ethics ever since. By using God’s more intimate, personal name, God is conveying to the Israelites—and through them to the entire world—that the rules by which humanity can best function are those that create a society built on justice but grounded in compassion.

 

D’rash – Kaplan’s Insight

“God is that aspect of reality which elicits from us the best that is in us and enables us to bear the worst that can befall us.” – Mordecai M. Kaplan

By identifying God as “that aspect of reality which elicits from us the best that is in us,” it is as if Kaplan is referring to the Adonai aspect of godliness that represents compassion and mercy.  In Kaplan’s eyes, God becomes both the inspiration for striving to achieve our best selves and the source of strength and comfort whenever we fall short or otherwise have to suffer the physical or spiritual enslavements of life.

In this portion, God has “heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage” (Exodus 6:5) and charges Moses to return to Egypt as God’s representative and become the agency of their redemption. Moses, for his part, doesn’t feel confident that he is the one for the job, both fearing that the Israelites will want nothing to do with him and that Pharaoh will not welcome him either, especially since he was forced to flee from Egypt after striking and killing an Egyptian task master. Nonetheless, just as Kaplan imagined God as “elicit[ing] from us the best that is in us,” Moses becomes God-inspired enough to rise above his misgivings and insecurities, mustering the necessary courage to challenge Pharaoh in God’s name and lead the Israelites from slavery to the Promised Land.

 

D’rash – A Personal Reflection

Love and Dignity

I’ll never forget the experience of checking my mother-in-law into a nursing home. Two weeks earlier Florence had been in the hospital recovering from a major blood loss due to a lab mistake that resulted in her being overmedicated on blood thinners. The hospital physicians then discovered some polyps in her colon that would need to be removed in several months, after she regained her strength. A fiercely independent woman who had lived alone for most of her life, Florence simply returned to her condo and continued with her life as best she could, so my wife and I called her daily to check in.

As the days passed, her voice became increasingly weaker and weaker. She began to sound so frail that we realized she hardly had strength to move from room to room, let alone feed herself adequately or make sure she was properly taking her medications. When we reached out to her doctor, we were flatly told, “Your mother needs to be either in the hospital or in a nursing home—period. But I can’t make her go there. She has to agree to be admitted.”

We drove over to Florence’s home, and holding her hands, we talked with her about her options. Even telling her how we could hardly sleep at night, worrying that she’d pass out with no one there, begin to bleed again, and die in her apartment before we could get to her didn’t seem to move her much. After all, she’d been living on her own for decades and figured she’d take care of herself as she always had. “If you want to worry go ahead,” she said, “but you have your own lives to lead. You don’t have to spend time worrying about me.” Then we watched as she got up to walk into the other room. Every one of her steps was painfully, achingly slow. Even with a walker it took her ten minutes to traverse twenty feet from the living room to her bed.

My wife gently placed her hand on her mother’s very frail shoulder. “Ma, is this really any way to live?” she quietly asked. “What about the quality of your life? Even though you haven’t said it, we know what you are afraid of, and we won’t let it happen to you. We promise we’re not going to put you in a nursing home and leave you there to die. We’re not going to sell your home out from under you.  You just can’t do it alone right now.  You need to be in a nursing home, but it will only be for a little while, until you gain back your strength.  Please. Once you have the procedure, I promise you can come home again.”

She sat in stillness for a moment, and then quietly agreed. Within two hours she had signed the local nursing home’s permission form, her physicians had sent over her files, and she was settling into the facility.

Florence agreed to go because she felt treated with respect and dignity. There was also divinity in our struggle together to find what, in Kaplan’s words, “enables us to bear the worst that befalls us.” There was godliness, too, in Florence’s discovering the best in her daughter and son-in-law.

And because we all opened our hearts to each other, Florence was nursed back to health and strength, had her procedure, and then returned home. ​​​​​​​

 

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Tue, January 28 2020 2 Sh'vat 5780