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Sunday, January 17, 2010
Va'Eira: A Fierce Mystery
This parsha starts off with God establishing God’s special relationship with Moses: “I am Adonai, I appeared, Va-eira, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shadddai but I did not make Myself known to them by my name, Yud Hey Vuv Hey.”
No one knows what El Shaddai means, it might mountains, or breasts, it might be a feminine name of God. Yud Hey Vuv Hey, as Rabbi Lippmann has pointed out many times, quoting Arthur Green, is a version of the Hebrew word to be, so it can be understood to be about the Is-ness of God, God not being in time, God is something that Was, that Is, that will be, that is in the moment at every moment in the way that we humans, with our beginnings, middles and ends, can never be.
The parsha continues. God gives Moses the task of confronting Pharoah and freeing the Hebrew slaves but when Moses tells the slaves what he is about to do, they don’t believe him. Their spirits and bodies are broken by slavery and they don’t dare to hope. So God sends Moses after Pharoah, with Aaron’s help. Moses fears he is unworthy of the task but God insists that he get started. Then follows a list of the people, the clans descended from Jacob’s sons, leading to the birth of Moses. Then God sends Moses out to confront Pharoah and tells him that God expects Pharoah to not listen, which will give God, through Moses, an opportunity to prove how amazing God is, both to Pharoah and the Hebrews. Pharoah and his people scoff. Then of course there’s a bunch of plagues, the first nine, ending in hail. Each time a plague happens Pharoah relents, then as soon as the plague stops he hardens his heart.
On the surface the parsha might seem like it’s mostly about the first nine plagues, but I think it’s about trying to figure out who or what God is, and about the nature of doubting and disbelieving. As we are a congregation whose opening line of the mission statement is that we are a place where doubt can be an act of faith, this is the parsha for us. It’s both a parsha about doubters and takes on the question of the nature of God. I like it.
So who are the doubters in this parsha? I think there are four. One, the mentally and physically exhausted slaves, and they’re thinking, Who the hell is this Moses? Where has he been all this time and what makes him so special? Two, Moses, who doubts himself, lacking confidence in his ability to speak and or inspire. Three, Pharoah, who sincerely believes him to be a God, who is stubborn and selfish and is simply not interested in losing his useful slaves. Miracles, shmiracles, he ain’t buying it.
As Neshama Leibowitz says,
“We see from here that the sign or wonder can only impress the one who is psychologically prepared to be convinced.”
I’m not sure I’m prepared to be convinced. The fourth doubter is me, us, we who read this parsha today, the modern liberal Jews, whose paradigm is rational and scientific, who read the Torah as a bunch of stories, our mythology yes, but not our history or that Torah is metaphorical or sometimes poetical at best, who don’t believe in an interventionist God or a God that is a being separate from the rest of us. Anyway, that’s me, maybe that’s you. I shouldn’t speak for you.
So Kolot Chayeinu, where doubt can be an act of faith… When I first joined Kolot I thought that meant, I can be a skeptic and still join a Jewish community, or it meant it honored past and present activism, truth to power, doubting the current Pharoahs, and it does mean that. We can join in this great community without checking our brains at the door.
But now, after some study and reflection, it means something else for me. Doubt, for me, is not about scorning faith or spirituality or Jewish. It means searching and questioning and studying as a Jewish way of life, as a Jewish way to seek connection which I can now say, yes, a name for that is Yud Hey Vuv Hey, Is Was and Will Be, and I don’t need proof and I don’t need no proof, it can’t be proven, it will always be doubtful, and that’s the most interesting thing about Is Was Will Be, at least for me.
God is connection and I find that connection is in the search for connection. Judaism is my gateway to this, and the jewish tradition of debate and questioning is mine as well. I am not halakhic, I don’t think God wrote those rules and when they don’t have meaning for me, or if they don’t serve as avenues to my search for God, or if they don’t connect me to my community, then I can’t follow them. But if I can find meaning, if by saying a blessing or lighting candles I can stop time and for a short moment, exist with God in the non-time that isIs Was Will BE, then why not? I mean, c’mon, such a complex thing, approached so easily by such simple acts. I doubt it means a thing, but maybe it does, maybe it does.
Rabbi Laura Geller writes:
"Think about the “god” you don’t believe in. Is it that you don’t believe in God or is it that you are stuck on one particular name, one particular metaphor that doesn’t name your experience of God? Might there be a different metaphor, another name that opens up the possibility of encounter with a power grander than yourself, with a web that can connect every person to every other person?"
El Shaddai, Yud Hey Vuv Hey, Ein Sof, Yah, Ruach Ha Olam, Adonai, Ha Shem, what’s the difference? Our relationship with God has moved from a family and tribal God, El Shaddai, to a people’s God, Yahweh, and now, I think, for many of us here, to a universal God that is not separate from us, not a part of us, but everything that is us and everything that is everything else. Doubt is an act of faith because to doubt is to engage, to care, to argue, to look for this God so I wish for every Jew, for every human, this wonderful gift of faith, this belief in doubt.
Alicia Ostriker write this about Moses:
Between the God of the universe and the God of a tribe, between inclusion and exclusion, between the imperative of liberty and the imperative of law, explodes Moses. What we know about him is exactly nothing, exactly everything, he is a fierce mystery.
And I’d say the same about God, whatever that is for you. A fierce mystery.