Parasha Va'era: It depends on us

What is the secret of Jewish survival? Doctors are beginning to recognize that one of the most important variables in achieving individual longevity is an optimistic outlook.

parsha vaera 88 (photo credit: )
parsha vaera 88
(photo credit: )
What is the secret of Jewish survival? Doctors are beginning to recognize that one of the most important variables in achieving individual longevity is an optimistic outlook. And one of the most important messages of Judaism is the optimistic notion of world redemption. Our Western culture is formed by the Greco-Roman civilization, and by what is generally known as the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Greeks saw the world and life as a cycle of endless repetition without purpose, as enunciated by Shakespeare: "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time"… "it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Judaism, on the other hand, teaches the promise of eventual human perfection, of a time when "nation will not lift up sword against nation and humanity will not learn war any more." I maintain that what has kept the Jewish nation alive despite exile, persecution and pogrom is this fundamental belief that what we do counts, and that eventually we will help bring about the blossoming of His Kingdom on earth. This revolutionary concept is built around the name of God that He revealed to Moses at the beginning of this week's portion, quoted above - YHVH. The Bible goes on to say that our patriarchs knew of the name "Almighty God" (el shaddai), but the generation of Moses was the first to know the new name, YHVH (pronounced today adonai, or Lord). And it is specifically within the context of this new revelation that God confirms the Covenant, the entry of Israel the people into Israel the land, and the exodus from slavery and oppression to freedom and redemption. What does this newly revealed name have to do with redemption? In last week's Torah reading we encountered a dialogue between God and Moses which holds the beginning of the explanation. The Almighty reveals Himself to Moses in a burning bush, charging him with taking the Jews out of Egypt (Exodus 3:10). Moses asks for God's name, which is another way of asking for a working definition which he could communicate to the people: "And God said to Moses, 'Ehyeh asher ehyeh'" which is best translated, "I will be what I will be." What kind of name is this? It seems vague, and very open-ended. Moreover, the verb form around which the name is built is identical to the verb form of the newly revealed name; both come from the verb "to be" (hyh). To complete the elements of our puzzle, we must consider the first commandment which God will give the newly formed Jewish people: "This renewal of the moon shall be for you the beginning of the months…." (Exodus 12:1). The Israelites are commanded to search the darkened sky for the new moon, whose light emerges each month from the blackened heavens. The Zohar, in explaining the importance of the moon and our celebration (even with Hallel) of its renewal each month, declares: "The Jewish nation is compared to the moon. Just as the moon wanes and seems to have disappeared into darkness only to be reborn, so will the Jewish people often appear to have been overwhelmed by the forces of darkness, only to reemerge as a nation reborn in a march towards redemption." So did the Babylonian Talmud emerge from the destruction of the Second Temple and the reborn State of Israel from the tragedy of the Holocaust. From this perspective, the message of the moon is ultimately one of optimism. The Almighty God Himself guarantees not only survival but salvation. The paradigm for the cycle of exile and redemption is our experience in and out of Egypt. But let us pay special attention to the words of this first commandment: "This renewal of the moon shall be for you the beginning of the months…" The Hebrew word meaning "for you" seems superfluous. Its meaning, however, as explained by the sages, makes it central to the world as the Bible sees it. Our God is not only the God of creation, el shaddai, the God who set limits on each element as he created the heavens and the earth, the sands and the seas, mineral, vegetable, animal and human life; He is also the God of history, who has a plan for the world which includes its ultimate perfection. If creation is an act of One, history must be the result of partnership between the Divine and human beings, God and His chosen people. Hence in marking the renewal of the month, which is a unit of historical time, the Lord tells His people that time is in their hands to do with what they will. If the objective amount of time we have depends on many factors aside from ourselves, what we do with the time at our disposal - our subjective time - depends mostly on us. Hence, when God asks Moses to be His agent, the first Divine Name He reveals to him is "I will be what I will be"; since I am the God of history, and I am asking you to be My partner in history; My ultimate design for the world will depend not only on Me but also on you. Yes, it will be within the context of the promises of redemption made to the patriarchs (Exodus 3:15), but when that will happen depends on you as well as on Me. No wonder this name of God is indecisive! And this is the meaning of the Name which God reveals to the generation of the Exodus: YHVH, one meaning of which could be "He will bring about." This name reflects optimism. Redemption is, after all, guaranteed by God. The light will definitely emerge from the darkness some day - but exactly when cannot be revealed; it depends on us. So although the uncertainty brings with it an element of frustration and even despair - as evidenced by the question we Jews so often ask each other: "So what will be?" - it also contains the seed of satisfaction. After all, if God didn't think we were capable, He would never have made us His partner in the first place! The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.