God Introduces Himself to Moses – Part I Va-eira: Exodus 6:2 – 9:35

Evidently, in the Torah there are at least seventy names or depictions of God – Avinu Malkenu, Our Father our King; Eloheinu, Our God; Melech Haolam, Ruler of the universe; Oseh Shalom, Creator of peace. These are just a few examples. God is a shape-shifter, but without a shape. In this week’s Reform commentary by Rabbi Reuven Greenvald, he cites the contemporary Israeli poet, Rivka Miriam. “Responding to the opening of our parashah, Rivka Miriam describes her own evolving relationship with God through each twist and turn of her life—from being born to growing up, from marriage to divorce, from feeling supported to feeling abandoned—calling God by a different name each time—names so personal she doesn’t share them:

I spread out God’s names in front of me
on the floor of my chilly room.
The name by which I called him when his spirit
breathed in me.
And the name by which I called him when
I was a young girl …
The name by which I called him so that he
would remember me. And the name so
that he would refrain from remembering.
In the heat of the day I will prostrate myself
on the floor of my chilly room.”

However, two names are central. As Rabbi Larry Englander has pointed out, they are part of a mezuzah, El Shaddai on the outside and then the hidden inner God, YHWH, on the inside. As Rabbi Reuven Greenvald also points out citing midrash, there are “two components in shedaisheh  and dai, together meaning ‘it’s enough’—the Patriarchs got just enough of God that they needed.” The Israelites might be His people who are especially protected, a people whom God had forgotten but has now remembered as well as his promise to them, a people with whom He has a special covenant, but God is also the one God, the God for everyone and to everyone.

When Moses tries to introduce God’s new name to the Israelites, they do not listen to him. All Moses’ original fears that no one would believe him come flooding back. And his excuse for not relaying the message is repeated – “I am a stutterer.” “I am impeded of speech.” Why would Pharaoh listen to him when he uncontrollably repeats himself? Only when repetition is seen as having a high value rather than being a disability.

The reason for sending the plagues will not be just to harden Pharaoh’s heart, but to demonstrate God’s power over all, more specifically over the most powerful god then known, the sun god of Egypt.  More importantly is the way this is done – by showing Pharaoh that this enslaved people is equal to Pharaoh. Pharaoh is NOT a god and not simply less powerful than the God of the Israelites. Moses is placed in the role of God to Pharaoh (7:1) by repeating everything that God tells him and by having Aaron pass the message on to Pharaoh. The point of the plagues will be to prove that YHWH is the Lord by delivering the Israelites from their servitude. And when Aaron cast down his rod, it became a serpent just as in the case of the Egyptian magicians, but with one difference. Aaron’s serpent ate the serpents of the Egyptian sorcerers.

If we are to understand the true drama of this occasion, we have to go back to the earlier text when God first introduced Himself to Moses, no longer as God Almighty, but as YHWH, as the inner God. As Professor Israel Knohl at Hebrew University wrote following the lead of the scholar Shelomo Dov Goitein, the name YHWH “originates in Midian, and derives from the Arabic term for ‘love, desire, or passion’” from the Arabic root h.w.y (هوى), and the word hawaya (هوايا). It is about inner feelings not the externality of existence, nor the security fears and concerns of a particular tribe. And since He is the singular God, He demands exclusive love. Monolatry (the exclusive worship of one god) is the precursor to divine monogamy. And divine monogamy is a precondition for a universal monotheism.

Goitein “connected this suggestion with the passage in Exodus 34, in a set of laws known by scholars as the Ritual Decalogue. One of the laws, which forbids Israel to worship other gods, reads:

שמות לד:יד כִּי לֹא תִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה לְאֵל אַחֵר כִּי יְ-הוָה קַנָּא שְׁמוֹ אֵל קַנָּא הוּא. Exod 34:14 For you must not worship any other god, because YHWH, whose name is Impassioned, is an impassioned God.”

In Exodus, it is Moses who brings our attention to the suffering of the Israelites when, in a passionate rage and incensed at the injustice, he beats and kills a sadistic overseer in a vigilante action. God had clearly forgotten the Jewish people as they sweated and laboured under the ruthless whippings of their overlords. As I wrote in my last blog, when two other Israelites indicated that they had witnessed the murder and could, presumably, inform the authorities about the deed, Moses fled Egypt for the land of the Midianites, married the daughter of the priest Jethro, and had a son Gershon with his wife, Zipporah. It is in the territory of the Midianites that Moses is introduced to God as not just the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, God as a security shield, but the God of passion demanding exclusive love.

God finally heard the cries of the Israelites. “Benei Yisrael sighed from the labour, and they cried out, and their supplication on account of the labour rose up to God. God heard their wailing, and He remembered His covenant with Avraham, with Yitzhak, and with Ya’akov.” (Exodus 2:23-24) God finally heard the cries of the people whom He had forgotten when He had a heart and His heart was broken.

How did they cry out? They begged God to save them. They prayed. The verb used is וַיִּצְעַק. They did not just entreat (להעתיר) God. They cried out like the frogs would cry out. They were croaking. They were choking under the burden of long hours of heavy labour laying bricks layer upon layer. Pharaoh, like Emmanuel Macron with respect to French workers, considered the Israelites lazy. So did all Egyptians. These former shepherds, whom a former Pharaoh had given status, were not built like farmers who toiled on the land. They were used to just standing around and walking from place to place. The Egyptians, as they had when Joseph first came to Israel, loathed and despised the people of Israel. A shepherd had a very lowly status. Now they were governed by a Pharaoh who shared the same distaste as the people.

Moses, when he allowed his wrath to overtake his prudence, fled at the possibility his act of murder could be reported. He became a fugitive from legal justice and from the cries of his people. He returned to the traditional profession of his people, being a shepherd, but among the Midianites. Did this rash act wake the Israelites from their long slumber, from their acceptance of the status quo? Is that why God finally heard their cries when they themselves recognized how downtrodden they were and pleaded for help? I think not, because it was many years later before God assigned Moses his mission.

The Israelites were crying out for relief, not yet victory over the Egyptians, not yet for freedom from their yoke. They just did not want to be worked so hard. Turning the Israelites into a people with a determination to occupy their own land and become self-governing required much more than relief, even much more than the destruction of the might of the Egyptians. The Israelites had to learn that their God was the God of all there is, that their God was the only God. The whole of Exodus will be needed to teach that lesson.

God hears the cries of the Israelites, but it is an angel who first appears to Moses “in a blazing fire out of a bush.” Why an angel? Why not God himself? Why a burning bush when the bush itself does not burn? Moses himself asks that question (3:5), not just I or the myriad of other commentators throughout the ages. Moses said, “I must turn aside to look at the marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up.” (3:3) That’s what grabs him. Not the sight of an angel. It is as if he only saw the wonder of a bush on fire without the wood itself burning. He saw the reflection of passion and rage that empowers rather than consumes the body. Did he not see the angel? Or was this the angel he did see?

I have a friend in Torah study who is unusual. He is totally uninterested in source criticism or in rooting the tales in the beliefs of the time, in historicism, or in linguistic historical research and archeology. He is only mildly interested in traditional grammatical analysis. He also has little interest in theology and understanding the conception of God, for example, God defined as the “one” by Plotinus, or as the ground of Being, as perfection, as omnipotent, as omniscient, or, for St. Thomas, an Aristotelian, as an actus purus and ipsum esse subsistens. All of that is peripheral. It is the experience of God that really counts. He is certainly uninterested in any psychological or sociological let alone political analysis of Moses – or God for that matter.

“My God!” he exclaims. “Can you imagine what it means to be in the presence of an angel and then hear the voice of God?” Like the Christian commentator, Gregory of Nyssa, in his De vita Moysis, Life of Moses, what counts is the record of the human-God encounter, and this time without the intervention of a dream or a created vision. “Just imagine what it must have been like.”

“When the Lord saw that he [Moses] had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush.” (3:4) The fact that an angel appeared in the burning bush seemed to be irrelevant. Or perhaps the burning bush without the wood being consumed was the angelic expression, was simply the visible manifestation of God. That was all Moses saw and it was enough to get Moses’ attention. God says, “Moses! Moses! Can you imagine God calling out to you by your name?” my friend asks. “It’s unbelievable.”

What is unbelievable is that Moses is unsurprised. He is not overwhelmed at the mystery of it all. He might have been startled at a bush burning without the wood being consumed, but a voice calling from amidst the burning bush seemed unremarkable. Moses just answers, “Hinaini. I am here.” Or “Here I am” or even “Here am I.” Which is it? Rabbi Plaut takes it to be the first. The stress is on presence. Moses’ name was called and he put his hand up. The stress is not on the “I”.

Your sandals are dirty. Take them off when you enter My presence. But do not come closer. You are already on holy ground. Moses is in Midianite territory and this is holy ground. Then God introduces Himself. After all, He could be any magical being. God says, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.” (3:6) I am the God of your ancestors. Christians tend to interpret this answer as God already insisting that He is the universal God. But not yet.

For Christians, as well as very many Jewish commentators, God is both transcendent and immanent. God is totally other without any material existence, without passions and of infinite power and goodness. But any ordinary reading of the Exodus story tells a tale of a God set out to prove, not that He is all powerful, but that He is more powerful than all the rival gods. And more. That He is the only God. And God is filled with passion – with anger and rage, with jealousy and remorse. Further, He is anything but the epitome of goodness. He endorses theft. He is guilty of infanticide. He organizes ethnic cleansing and commits genocide. My rabbi may ask, “why is it written on the Supreme Court in Washington, “In God We Trust?” I answer, “Only if we distrust first.” Only if we ask questions. Moses did not connect to God by a leap of faith but through the path of doubt, almost all focussed on himself. But also on God.

Was Moses brazen in questioning God, even if it was simply because of being chosen to carry out God’s mission? “If you are so great, why did you choose me for this mission when I stutter, when I lack the respect of my fellow Israelites, when Pharaoh has no reason to listen to me let alone enter into a diplomatic discourse to free the Israelites?”

In the current film, Vice, George Bush Jr. needs someone with gravitas, with heft and experience in Washington and in foreign affairs. He asks Dick Cheney to be his vice-president when running for office. Cheney declines. He does not say, “Why me?” The message is the opposite. The position of a president-in-waiting without power is not for me. Cheney goes further. He offers to be a one-person search committee for a vice-president. But Bush wants him. And Cheney accepts, but only on condition that virtually all of the crucial powers of the presidency are his responsibility. According to the film, Bush Jr. is simply Cheney’s mouthpiece. In the Torah, however, Moses is truly God’s mouthpiece.

Moses makes no deal equivalent to Cheney’s. He questions, but he is not really brazen. The issue turns out to be not whether Moses is or is not worthy of the mission assigned, but whether God will be with him, will be within him, for only then can Moses speak in the name of God. Even then, just for raising that question, Moses is rebuked by God. Moses will simply be the one through whom God speaks to the Israelites, speaks to Pharaoh, speaks to the world. Who is this God for whom Moses will speak?

To be continued.

 

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