Torah Reflections: January 22 – 28, 2017

Va’eira

Exodus 6:2 – 9:35

Many Faces of God

This week’s Torah portion opens with a compelling affirmation: “God (Elohim) spoke to Moses and said to him: ‘I Am the Eternal (YHVH).’” [Ex. 6:2] I often wonder how people read this opening: “God spoke to Moses.” It is such a common verse in Torah that we tend to skip over it. But, this time, let’s take a few moments to reflect on what it might mean.

Whatever image this sentence conjures within us, based on our own individual understanding of what God might be, this sentence categorically affirms that God is. In truth, there never is a debate within Judaism about God’s existence; not in biblical times and not since the advent of Rabbinic Judaism. God’s existence is taken for granted in Jewish tradition. We simply start with “God is.” The nature of the Divine, what God is, is what we are asked to explore and unpack for ourselves in each generation, together with the Divine’s relationship with Creation.

Beneath the layer of the myth or the storytelling, we are confronted with God as Elohim revealing God-Self as YHVH. The late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem M. Schneerson, explains that the word “Elohim [is] a finite disclosure, revealing God as He is immanent in the world, the world of plurality: hence the name Elohim which is in the plural.” God, as immanent, manifests Himself as all that is, the whole of Creation. Everything, every one, everywhere, every when, is God; is Elohim. But Rabbi Schneerson continues saying that God telling Moses “I am YHVH, “was [now] revealed in His four-letter name as infinite, transcending all divisions, a Oneness.” YHVH are the four letters of the unpronounceable name of God, transcending the divisions of the dualistic world of Creation; not plural but One. Here, God is nothing, no one, nowhere and no when. The name is unpronounceable because words exist only in the world of Elohim. YHVH transcends time and space, It is pure nothingness within which everything arises; formless Being-ness within which all form becomes manifest.

In the next verse of our Torah portion God follows His initial declaration saying: “I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by my name YHVH.” [Ex. 6:3] The Midrash explains: “And so the Name Shaddai represents God as He appears in the finite world” [Bereishit Rabbah 46,2] God appears in/as/through the finite world, but His essence (his name) is known only beyond that world. Furthermore, from this moment forward, the totality of the Divine nature—immanent and transcendent at once—now so revealed, can be known and apprehended by all. God is now making God-self available to be fully known. And the Lubavitcher Rebbe concludes: “At that moment [of revelation, all] divisions were dissolved, [and most critically] the division between higher and lower powers.” [Torah Studies, p.88] The Rebbe is calling us to awaken to a realization wherein the separation between the higher transcending YHVH and the lower immanent Elohim dissolves, a knowing that YHVH and Elohim are not two.

Some of us connect to God as Elohim in the plurality of ways She appears: immersed in the sacredness of Creation, the holiness of Nature. Others seek to know or commune with YHVH, the transcending aspect of God through meditation or prayer. Ultimately, as the Rebbe said, at the end of whichever path we choose is an opening in consciousness wherein all divisions dissolve, and one is able to remember the One at the source of it all.

Torah Reflections: January 15 – 21, 2017

Sh’mot

Exodus 1:1 – 6:1

Beyond Fear and Morality

This week we open the Book of Exodus. Jacob and his sons settled in Egypt as Joseph, then Viceroy, invited them to. After that generation dies out we are told, “the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them.” [Ex. 1:7] But then: “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” [Ex.1:8] Pharaoh, out of fear of the Hebrews being “much too numerous” [Ex. 1:9] began to enslave and oppress them, and ordered the Israelite midwives to kill every newborn boy. But Pharaoh’s genocidal attempt was thwarted by the midwives themselves who, in the first recorded case of civil disobedience in history, “did not do as the king of Egypt had told them.” [Ex. 1:17] Why did the midwives risk their lives to save the children? The Torah answers: “Because [they] feared God.” [Ex. 1:21]

This stated motivation for the midwives to act counter to Pharaoh’s edict is problematic, and deserves deeper exploration. Torah is subject to multitude of interpretations and this passage is no exception. One level of interpretation reads this statement as presuming that the midwives acted out of fear of Divine punishment. They thought Pharaoh’s potential retribution to be of lesser consequence to them than that of God. Their actions, though life-saving, were ultimately self-serving; choosing the lesser of two evils. Not only does this understanding diminish the midwives, it also paints a portrait of a God only able to elicit fidelity from His people through fear and coercion; a God not much better than Pharaoh himself. But a commentary in the Etz Hayim Torah interprets the verse at another level:

The case of the midwives suggests that the essence of religion is not belief in the existence of God or any other theological precept, but belief that certain things are wrong because God has built standards of moral behavior into the universe…. They were willing to risk punishment at the hand of Pharaoh rather than betray their allegiance to God. [Etz Hayim, p.320]

We are reminded, here, that essential to the practice of Judaism is upholding principles of justice and morality. The “fear of God” is equated with the fear of breaking one’s allegiance to a deity demanding such ethical behavior. And though this might be a step above the aforementioned fear of direct Divine retribution, it still leaves the midwives’ feat to be selfishly motivated by their fear of breaking from their religious standards, of betraying their loyalty, and not by saving lives. At the same time, while this interpretation helps us see God as the moral compass of Creation (rather than a vengeful narcissist,) God’s sword of justice is still what compels one’s faithfulness.

The Hebrew offers a third layer of understanding. Narrowly translated as “Fear of God,” the Torah’s expression “Yirat Elohim” has far broader implications. Elohim is the name of God in the plural. It represents the world of plurality, of duality; God in Its finite expression as Creation itself. It is the Divine Being in Its immanent aspect, manifesting as every being, and every form. Yirah, for its part, is often translated as “awe” instead of “fear.” Yirat Elohim represents the sense of awe one experiences in the realization that everything is an expression of God, God manifest. The midwives felt with every child they helped birth a profound sense of awe, unfathomable love, and deep reverence for each new life as a manifestation of the One Life itself. It wasn’t any ego fear-based motivation that compelled them to act. Theirs wasn’t even a moral act. Action was simply a natural extension of their awareness, their wakefulness, their love. It knew no reason, needed no explanation. It just was.

On this critical day in our nation’s history, may we be inspired by the Hebrew midwives of Egypt, and source our response—when called to action in the days, weeks and years to be—not from a place of fear, but, rather, from a place of awe, from a place of fierce, unwaivering love.