January 21, 2009
Parshat Va’era (Exodus 6:2-9:35)
Elie Wiesel once wrote about his life in the period soon after the Shoah: “I felt like a stranger. I had lost my faith, and thus, my sense of belonging and orientation. My faith in life was covered in ashes; my faith in humanity was laughable; my faith in God was shaken.”
In moments of utter darkness where does faith come from? I have known moments in my life when all was dark and hopeless, and God was, at best, a mystery. Darkness comes in many forms — death and illness, shattered hopes and dreams. Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger (1847-1905) teaches, “The truth is that at all times there is mitzrayim — Egypt/constriction — for every person in Israel.” Faith is often misunderstood. If faith means to swallow God whole, I confess: I am a faithless rabbi. But faith is not a leap. Not a possession, something one has. It is reliability, showing up.
Va’era begins in a moment of descending darkness. God has promised redemption but Moshe went to Pharaoh and not only did Pharaoh not listen, things got worse. Moshe tells God: “Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has dealt worse with this people; and still You have not delivered Your people” (Exodus 5:23). God promises redemption again (Exodus 6:6-8) but “when Moshe told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moshe, from shortness of breath and cruel bondage.” God instructs Moshe to go again to Pharaoh (Exodus 6:10-11) but Moshe tells God, “The children of Israel would not listen to me, how then will Pharaoh listen to me, a man with a speech impediment?” (Exodus 6:12). Pharaoh will not listen — this we expect. The people too have lost hope, understandable after hundreds of years of slavery. But now Moshe, too, seems to be saying to God: this can’t be done! In her commentary on Exodus, Avivah Zornberg writes, “The crisis in the drama of redemption enters its most fraught moment ... God’s ... message of redemption is blocked by all three human protagonists: by Pharaoh, by the Israelites, and by Moses himself.”
How then is redemption achieved? In total darkness, how does one find light?
Va’era begins, “Elohim spoke to Moshe and said to him, I am Hashem. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai but I did not make Myself known to them by My name Hashem.” Wondering why the patriarchs are invoked at this particular moment, Rashi explains that God is invoking the promise he made to them: “I faithfully reward those who follow Me. I did not send you for nothing, but to fulfill My promise to the patriarachs,” and he explains that the phrase, “I am Hashem” indicates that God can be relied upon. God can be relied upon. God is faithful. Are we?
The liturgy teaches that when we wake up each morning, we should say: “I am grateful before You, Living King, that You returned my soul to me with grace, how great is your faith.” What is “God’s faith” in returning my soul to me? The phrase means God is faithful, like a husband who calls each night when he’s away on a business trip. Faith is not something one swallows once; it is a decision made over and over again. Over and over again, God returns my soul to me in the morning.
How am I a man of faith? There are things I cannot believe, times when I cannot say with certainty that life, or even God, is good. But I return to God, sometimes in anger and depression, sometimes just tired, but I return and I pray. John Milton once wrote, “A man may be a heretic in the truth; if he believes things only because his pastor says so, or the assembly so determines, without knowing other reasons, though his belief be true, yet the very truth he holds becomes his heresy.” Can I say the Kaddish, a prayer that proclaims God’s greatness, in anger? Can I pray in protest or anger or in silence? I hope so, for to mouth words I do not believe seems a heresy. The Talmud teaches God’s seal is truth. When I pray in these moments, I find God is not angry at my anger, but rather is embracing of it, and of the authenticity that I endeavor to bring to our relationship.
Later in the parsha, Rashi quotes a midrash that says Pharaoh would go to the river “to perform his bodily needs [so those in his kingdom would not see]. He would portray himself as a god, claiming he did not need to clear his bowels.” Pharaoh tries to deny his neediness. Being closed up emotionally is the very problem of Egypt. The risk of life’s darkest moments is their capacity to close us up within ourselves, to let the devastation of the moment blind us to a future of possibility. We cannot begin to have a relationship with God if we stop showing up, if we remain closed to God’s message of redemption.
Wiesel once wrote, “I was angry at God, too, at the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob: How could He have abandoned His people just at the moment when they needed Him? How could He have delivered them to the killers? How could one explain, how could one justify, the death of a million Jewish children?” But it is an important, yet little known, fact that Elie Wiesel studies Talmud every day and has done so most of his life. He shows up. This week, God reminds us in the midst of darkness: “I made a promise and I am keeping it. I am here.”
God is faithful. Are we?
Rabbi Daniel Greyber is executive director of Camp Ramah in California, the Jewish summer camp for the Conservative movement serving the Western United States, and the Max and Pauline Zimmer Conference Center of American Jewish University.