A Water from the Well blog post, Parashat Va-eira
Written by Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
January 12, 2024
On this Shabbat I’d like to talk with you about several things. I’d like to share some teachings about the many different names of God that appear in this week’s Torah portion. I’d like to speak with you about the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and I’d like to speak with you about Israel.
Let’s begin with the new names of God that appear in this week’s Torah portion. Apparently, name changes occur quite frequently in the Torah. There are, for example, the famous stories of Avram and Sarai becoming Avraham and Sarah, of Joshua’s name being changed from Hoshea to Yehoshua, and of Jacob being given the name Israel. But what is quite remarkable is that God also takes on new names and tells us about them, as an expression of an intentional change in identity.
In last week’s Torah portion, Sh’mot (which literally means “names”), Moses encounters God at the Burning Bush and asks God for a Name to bring back to the people. God reveals a new name, saying, “My name shall be Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh – I will be that which I will be. And this will be my name forever!” (Ex. 3:14) God appears to name God’s Self as that which is becoming. I will be that which I will be; God as a process; God as source of all potentialities. Let’s hold onto this idea as we move forward into the new God-names that appear in this week’s reading.
Just a few chapters later (Ex.6:2) God makes the following statement to Moses: “I appeared to your ancestors as El Shaddai, but I did not make myself known to them as Y-H-V-H.”
What was the meaning of the name El Shaddai, and why is this the God of the ancestors? Rashi ( 11th cent. Torah commentator) translates this name to mean “God who was enough.” In Hebrew the word she’dai means “enough.” Rashi sees in this name a personal God who met the personal needs of the ancestors. But now we come to discover God as Y-H-V-H, a term for Being, which includes in its letters the Hebrew words for the past (HaYaH) the present (HoVeH) and the future (YiHiYeH). In other words, the name Y-H-V-H refers to Eternal Being, God of all time, place and potentialities. This is the new face of God, about to be revealed; the One who will turn the world upside down, lift up the lowly, bring down the arrogant, open the sea to dry land, free the enslaved.
To paraphrase the text of the Torah: Your ancestors knew me as the God that was enough but now I will reveal myself as the One who is eternally becoming, eternally in process, the Master of Transformation.
This is the aspect of God that makes redemption possible. But the key for us today, for us in this moment when we are so susceptible to a crushed spirit, is that this transformative capacity, this potential for change is implanted within all human beings and within all of life. For life itself is defined by change, a force we can harness for good or evil.
On this weekend when we traditionally honor the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., let us consider how he evoked this aspect of God’s transformative power. Dr. King said: “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”
This is the kind of emunah, faith, that is needed today as we endure these most painful eruptions of violence, horror, and death. We must first access our emunah, our faith “that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.” Only then can we plant real seeds for a future peace.
Dr. King was a living lesson in faith. It was his faith that strengthened and propelled him to fight the holy battle, not only for the civil rights of African Americans, but for the human rights of all. As a minister, a preacher, a man of God, Dr. King expressed the deep conviction that every human being is an expression of Divine Presence.
He taught that the work of liberation, of bringing about a more just world, is a Godly process working through each one of us. And because each human being contains a Godly spark, a divinely inspired wave arising from the Ocean of Being, we are all fundamentally connected to one another.
Dr. King said: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” In other words, until all of us, black people and white people, Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians, reckon with this truth, there can be no lasting peace.
We have come to a place where our people, having suffered the absolute horror and atrocities of the October 7th massacre, are now responsible for the deaths of more than 20,000 human beings. By all accounts, the majority of these Palestinians were innocent of the heinous crimes committed on October 7th. Two million more human beings in Gaza are staring death in the face, through starvation, thirst, and disease. We, as Jews, and as members of the human family, simply cannot turn away from this suffering.
I believe we can no longer justify massive attacks that kill, injure, and displace so many civilians as righteous acts of self defense. For the sake of all the innocent, for the sake of the children of Gaza and the children of Israel, for the sake of our brave soldiers, for the sake of our own humanity, and for the sake of a future in which there may yet be any hope for peace, we must raise the call for peace. Yes, I am advocating for a bilateral ceasefire, a pause in the fighting to pursue the release of hostages and begin the work of building a livable and equitable future for all God’s children.
Let us turn back to the text of our holy Torah and remember that it was not vengeance that initiated the redemption of the Israelites. It was God’s compassion, aroused by witnessing the suffering of the people, that enabled the redemptive process to unfold. It was this channel of compassion that elicited a new aspect of Divinity to flow into the world: that of liberation and transformation.
Let us not harden our hearts to the pain of this moment, the pain that waxes each day that the hostages remain in captivity, each day that more children are killed in Gaza, each day that more young Israeli men and women fall on the battlefield, each day that more families grieve their lost loved ones.
We are all witnesses and therefore we all bear responsibility. Let us not be afraid to speak out for change in order to protect the lives of the innocent. Let us not be afraid to speak out for peace. As Dr. King said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”