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January 22, 2020 - Parashat Va'era 5780

A D’var Torah for Parashat Va’era
By Cantor Sandy Horowitz (’14)

Parashat Va’era begins with a continuation of the interaction between God and Moses from last week’s parasha. This week’s conversation seems to be a “do-over”, perhaps the result of God’s recognition that the relationship with Moses is going to be quite different from the earlier relationships between God and the Genesis patriarchs.

When God first appeared to Abraham (then called Avram) in the book of Genesis, God commanded him, “Go forth from your land and from your birthplace…to the land that I will show you. And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you…” The response was direct and immediate: “So Avram departed” (Gen 12:1-4).

Moses is no Abraham. Last week when Moses first encountered God at the burning bush, he was far more reluctant to follow God’s instructions. After the introductory “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham…Isaac… and Jacob” God spoke of having seen the affliction of the Israelites, and then told Moses, “Come now therefore and I will send you to Pharaoh, that you may bring forth my people…out of Egypt” (Ex 3:10). Moses’ response might be described as a classic “wait – what?” moment, as he began to question God: “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh?” (Ex 3:11), adding later in Ex 4:1, “they [the Israelite people] will not believe me nor listen to my voice”. In fact as Moses predicted, his initial encounter with Pharaoh did not go well, and the Israelites ended up worse off than before.

At the start of Parashat Va’era God is speaking once again with Moses. In the opening four verses it appears that God is making a case to establish Divine authority and re-state the Divine intention, which had not been necessary with Abraham.

God begins by stating, “I am Adonai”. Then, credibility is established based on the Divine relationship with the ancestors: “And I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob…” (Ex 6:2-3).

There are frequent invocations by God of the three patriarchs in these opening chapters of Exodus. Even before the initial encounter with Moses at the burning bush, we read that God heard the groaning of the Israelite slaves, “and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob” (Ex 2:24). Then, as noted earlier, the three were mentioned in God’s introduction to Moses. During that same encounter, God instructed Moses to explain to the Israelite people about the Divine Presence, as the One who was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Ex 3:15). Then again here in verse 6:3 of Parashat Va’era, God does so once again.

What is the significance of the frequent repetition of God’s relationship to the patriarchs? First, it suggests that while the Israelite people had not yet encountered God directly, they did know their ancestry; these names would presumably have been familiar and beloved to them. By being linked to them, God establishes validity.

Going back to the rest of the verse in Exodus 6:3, a connection is now made between the patriarchs and Moses which goes beyond mere ancestry. After invoking the patriarchs God states, “but by my name Adonai was I not known to them”. In his commentary on this verse Rashi explains that the ancestors actually would have known God as Adonai, but that God is saying, “for I made promises to them, but I did not fulfill [them while they were alive].” God was known to the ancestors through the promises that they would multiply and become a great nation, and that they would inherit a land which would be theirs. However, God was not known to them in the sense that these promises remained unfulfilled in their lifetimes. In speaking to Moses, God is saying that now is the time for these ancestral promises to finally become fulfilled.

Two more arguments are presented in verses four and five of chapter 6, each beginning with the word v’gam (“and also”), suggesting that God is building a case, point by point. First, God explains to Moses that God’s covenant with the ancestors was established with the promise that they would live in the land of Canaan, for they did in fact sojourn there, albeit temporarily. This is another way of demonstrating God’s credibility.

The second v’gam statement in verse five is an appeal on an emotional level, showing God’s empathy for the Israelite plight: “I have also heard the groaning of the people of Israel… and I have remembered my covenant.”

God now instructs Moses in what to say to the people, with the series of promises we recite today with the four cups of wine at the Seder table: “I will bring you out…I will deliver you…I will redeem you… I will take you to be my people…”(Ex 6:6-7).

These arguments are effective, as Moses does resume his efforts on God’s behalf. A lasting relationship is being established between God and Moses, one that will be both more complicated and more intimate than God has had before.
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Cantor Sandy Horowitz (AJR ’14) is an independent cantor and tutor.