This week, we study Parashat Va’era, in which the drama of our journey towards Redemption continues. The parasha opens with a scene in which G8d addresses Moshe’s report that, so far, the intervention is going poorly. “Listen up Moshe!” G8d replies, “I’m not sure you really know Who you’re dealing with here!” OK, so that’s a creative translation… In any case, G8d reminds Moshe that he is dealing with the G8d of his ancestors, Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov. Not only that, but at that moment, G8d reveals the Ineffable Name - Y-H-V-H - the Tetragrammaton. G8d reminds Moshe that G8d remembers the covenant, hears the cry of the people, and intends to make good on that covenant right about now.
Moshe follows his marching orders, and goes back to the Israelites to let them know what G8d has said. Their spirits are so crushed by now that they don’t buy it, and Moshe goes back, discouraged. Next logical step? G8d sends Moshe to Pharaoh to deliver the message and demand the release of the Israelite people. Reluctantly, Moshe follows his orders once again and goes to Pharaoh only to be rebuffed.
At this point, there is a break in the narrative, in the form of yet another long list of names. More on this soon… This list of names - the names of the clans of the House of Yisrael - almost acts as a breather before the pace of the narrative makes a dramatic leap forward. G8d reveals that there are marvels and wonders in store to humble Pharaoh, whose heart G8d will harden repeatedly.
That stuff is all really cool and action-packed, but what I’d like to focus on primarily is the ideas of names. Yes, I know Parashat Shemot (aka “Names”) was last week, but we’re far from through with the discussion of names. Most notably, in Shemot G8d reveals the name “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh,” and in the very beginning of our current parasha is G8d’s revelation to Moses of the ineffable name - YHVH. G8d makes a point of telling Moshe that this name was not revealed to his forebears, Abraham, Isaac, and Yaakov. So what? “What’s in a name?” as someone else once said. One of my teachers, Hazzan Saul Wachs, taught me that a name represents the knowable essence of the person, animal, or other thing that holds that name. As Rabbi Marcia Prager puts it, through naming the animals, Adam is not merely imposing a human label on each creature, but performing “an act of discernment, a recognition of something essential about each creature,” and articulating that through human syllables. So, you see, a name is not just a name.
Throughout this narrative, G8d repeatedly refers to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and calls the Israelites by name. It is as if, with each iteration of their ancestry, the people (plural) of Israel coalesce more and more into a people (singular). G8d refers to them as “My People,” and asks Moses to deliver the message, “I will take you to be My people, and I shall be your G8d.” When examined through this lens, suddenly the list of names of the House of Jacob seems less like a breather, and more like a powerful gathering of momentum. In this momentum is the force needed to turn a group of individuals into a collective entity. A people.
By now, G8d’s knowable essence is flooding forth through conversations with Moshe. What do we learn about G8d? We learn that G8d intervenes with human affairs; we learn that G8d is paying attention; we learn that G8d has a good memory; we learn that G8d wants justice and to protect the vulnerable. Through the revealed names Ehyeh asher Ehyeh (also shortened to Ehyeh) and YHVH we learn about potential. My mentor, Hazzan Jack Kessler shared with me his understanding of these two names. Let’s look at Ehyeh asher Ehyeh. Often translated as “I am that I am”, there is another way to look at it. Grammatically, Ehyeh can be read as either future or conditional, which would bring us closer to “I will be what I will be” or “I would be what I could be” or any number of variations and combinations of these. If we sit with these ideas long enough, what is revealed is existence and potential, yielding the name, “I am All Existence and All Potential.” G8d instructs Moshe to tell the Israelites, “Ehyeh sent me,” or “Hey! Your Potential is calling to you!” In this reading, YHVH becomes a sort of shorthand or mnemonic for past/present/future being-ness all rolled into one, also known as “All Existence.”
What else do we learn through these initial conversations? We start to see the difference between a boss and a leader, and we see that G8d is in the latter category. What’s the difference? Again I tip my hat to Hazzan Wachs for his teaching on this topic. A boss is someone who tells you what to do. A leader is someone who can assess the needs of those she leads, guide them in the appropriate direction, and give them the tools to accomplish the task at hand. More on this soon, but first, back to names.
Let’s talk about Moshe. We know Moshe’s name. That’s not news. The intriguing thing here has to do with Moshe’s knowable essence. From Moshe’s first encounter with HaShem at the bush, we see that Moshe is pretty sure he’s not the guy G8d is looking for. “Me? Yeah, I don’t speak that well. You must be thinking of someone else.” “No,” G8d assures him, with some irritation, “you’re my guy.” At that time, G8d gives Moshe some tools and a support staff, and sends him on his way.
As we know, Moshe’s first attempts at getting through to Pharaoh fall on deaf ears - Pharaoh doesn’t listen to his voice. So, Moshe reports back to G8d, who delivers the next set of instructions. By now Moshe is quite convinced of his inadequacy. He knows himself in a certain way. To himself, Moshe’s name is “I Am of Uncircumcised Lips.” G8d, being G8d, knows something of Moshe’s essence that Moshe has not yet tapped into. To G8d, Moshe’s name is “My Proxy on the Ground.”
G8d doesn’t give up on him, but continues to lead, continues to provide the tools and support staff he needs to carry out the task - a daunting one, to be sure! Through G8d’s continued pushing of Moshe well outside his comfort zone, we start to see Moshe grow in confidence. The dynamic between the two of them starts to shift. Moshe stops going back to G8d to protest the futility of the mission and starts simply returning for further direction, which he then carries out unquestioningly. G8d is willing to reveal the thinking behind the plan, too. Moshe is not left in the dark. G8d’s directions are not just, “Because I said so!” This is another thing that marks G8d as a leader vs. a boss.
Now for the important part: What does this have to do with me and my life? G8d is not the only one who can see things in us that we can’t see in ourselves. I’ll hazard a guess that most of you have had experiences of being tapped for some task or role you thought, for sure, was out of your league. Perhaps you’ve even declined, but sometime down the road, someone else asks something similar of you. “Why do people keep asking me to do these things? This isn’t me!” I have been surprised again and again by the roles I have been encouraged to take on, and incredulous as to my ability to handle them. I think I know something about myself and who I am. Those who know me have been a continued witness to my unfolding as a Hazzan - beyond the very last thing I thought I’d ever do. Perhaps you’ve been on the other side, and have had the opportunity to nudge someone in an unlikely direction, and support them into a new phase of their experience of themselves.
To me, that process is an encounter with Divinity. If we are open with one another, if we can be attuned to others’ needs, and help each other realize our hidden strengths, we have the opportunity to reenact a story of Divine intervention, and to be witness to modern miracles. Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi z”l thought that perhaps it isn’t the past that pushes us forward, but rather the future that pulls us to it. Listen. Your Potential is calling to you.