Sunday, January 21, 2007

Vaera (Rashi)

For further teachings on this parsha, see the archives for February 2006 on this blog. For teachings on the new month of Shevat, see below.

More on Names

Last week we noted Rashi’s non-theological interpretation of the name “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh,” in which he sees this Divine Name as relating to the immediate situation confronting Moshe in addressing the Israelite people in slavery. This week’s parsha opens with two verses relating to the Divine name, the latter of which draws a comparison between the name by which He was “made known” to the patriarchs, and that which He is using now, in His announcement pf the imminent redemption. But first, the opening verse, on which Rashi makes a succinct comment relating to the meanings or implications of the different names of God:

Exod 6:2: “And God (Elohim) spoke to Moses and said, I am the Lord (HWYH). Rashi: “And God/Elohim spoke to Moses.” He spoke with him in judgment, because he had spoken harshly, saying “why have You done evil to this people” (above, 5:22).

In this opening comment, Rashi follows the standard Rabbinic distinction, according to which the generic name Elohim alludes to Middat Hadin—i.e., objective, unmitigated judgment, with a certain tone of severity; while the name HWYH (I use throughout this circumlocution, in which the letters of the name are scrambled even in transliteration, out of reverence for the holiness of the Ineffable Name), God’s so-to-speak “personal” name, refers to Middat Harahamim—His compassion, love, forgiveness, and bending of strict justice to favor, especially, His covenantal people (These two attributes reappear in Kabbalistic thought as hesed & gevurah, at the top of the seven more active Sefirot). Rashi here notes that, as Moshe had spoken to God in angry, mistrustful tones in their last conversation (after himself “getting it” both from Pharaoh and from the representatives of the people), God responds in kind. But we continue:

“And He said to him: ‘I am the Lord/HWYH.’ Faithful to give a good reward to those who walk before Me. And I have not sent you for naught, but rather to fulfill the words that I spoke to the patriarchs. And we find such language expounded thusly in several places: ‘I am HWYH’—[meaning,] ‘faithful to take recompense’ when used in reference to punishment, as in “And you shall profane the name of your God, I am the Lord” (Lev 19:12). And when it is used in connection with fulfilling the mitzvot, as in “And you shall observe and do them, I am the Lord” (Lev 19:37)—it means ‘He who is faithful to give reward.’

The second half of the verse, even though spoken by Elohim, presents another name: HWYH. Here, Rashi gives what is, to the best of my knowledge, a new and different interpretation of the meaning of this name. It is no longer Middat Harahamim over against Middat Hadin, but encompasses both: “I am HWYH” means as: I am faithful, reliable, may be trusted to carry out My word—whether that means, in practice, compassion and love, the tender, protective, “motherly” emotions; or the severity meted out in recompense to wrongdoers.

This same line of interpretation is continued in the next verse:

6:3. “I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but in/by My Name HWYH I was not made known to them.” Rashi: “I appeared.” To the fathers. “As El Shaddai.” I made promises to them, and in all of them I said to them: “I am El Shaddai.”

I do not understand the opening part of this comment: “to the fathers.” Why does Rashi feel it necessary to tell us that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are ”the fathers”? Surely ever five-year-old knows that! But, if we believe that Rashi did not write things simply to use up ink, we must assume that this comment is of significance and try to decipher its meaning. As of this writing, I find myself clueless.

In the second part of this comment he develops his theory of Divine Names further: If HWYH means “He who is reliable, who fulfills His word,” El Shaddai or simply Shaddai means the opposite: “He who makes promises but, for the present, does not fulfill them.” The patriarchs, by and large, had to suffice with promises, and simply live in the faith that these would sooner or later be fulfilled; they lived in a stage of pre-fulfillment, when the drama of the shaping of the Jewish nation had not yet reached the stage of fruition. The descent to Egypt, the enslavement, the Redemption, and the years of wandering in the desert, still had to take place before their descendants could arrive at “the rest and the inheritance.” Indeed, a well-known midrash on this verse notes how, notwithstanding the promise of the entire Land, Abraham had to pay good money to bury his wife, Yitzhak’s wells were constantly being stolen, and Jacob couldn’t even pitch his tent without paying money—and yet through it all they maintained their trust in God (see Exod. Rab. 6.4).

The name El Shadday only appears in half-a-dozen verses in Bereshit all told: Gen 17:1; 28:3; 35:11; 43:14; 48:3; 49:25. In almost all of these, the name is invoked in the context of blessings—that is, conveying hopes and expectations for the future—whether these were uttered by people or by God Himself—i.e., referring to He who is capable of fulfilling, but will do so in the future. Apart from that, it reappears in the Torah only in the present verse and in the Balaam story, twice (Num 24:4, 16: “who perceives the vision of Shaddai”); and, in the other books of the Bible, numerous times in the Book of Job (which is a densely poetic world unto itself). We continue:

“But by/in my name HWYH I was not made known to them.” It is not written ‘I did not make known” but ‘I was not made known.’ I was not known to them in My attribute of truthfulness for which I am called HWYH—‘faithful to make His words come true’—for I promised and had not [yet] fulfilled.

Here Rashi anticipates an obvious criticism of this verse, that in modern times has been the source of no end of trouble and polemics. How can God say “I did not make my name HWYH known to the patriarchs,” when that very name appears scores, if not hundreds of times, in the Book of Genesis? It’s obviously untrue! Rashi explains that the verb form used here is not the causative (hif‘il), ‘did not make known,’ but the passive (nif‘al), ‘was not made known’—that is, I did not perform those actions which would have been a manifestation of the actual meaning of this name; the name HWYH, when it was used there, was merely a means of identifying Myself, so to speak, a sobriquet, but not the Name used in its essential meaning.

This verse was one of the key texts used by the school of Higher Biblical Criticism, which began in the 19th century. Its founder, Julius Wellhausen, propounded what was known as the Documentary Hypothesis, according to which the Torah was composed of a number of different strands, written at different times and by different authors, and later woven together by an editor, or redactor. According to this school, our verse indeed involved an announcement or revelation of a new name of God, which was not used by the author of the particular document to which it belongs (“J”) until that time; therefore, all those passages in Genesis which do use HWYH must have ipso facto been written by a different hand. Those who grew up in the 1960s may remember studying the “Soncino Humash,” edited by the late Chief Rabbi of Britain, J. H. Hertz, which features a lengthy excursus in which he polemicized with this view: “Does Exodus vi.3 support the Higher Critical Theory?” In any event, Rashi, almost a millennium earlier, seems to answer their objection, at least as regards this verse, with his comment.

In brief: Rashi, both here and on Exod 3:14-15, which we discussed last week, interprets the Divine Names in terms of God’s faithfulness, His promises and fulfillment. It occurred to me, in conclusion, that this line of thought may be related to the other, more conventional understandings of the Names, as follows (all this is purely my own speculation): Elohim, or Shaddai, refers to power, in the sense of potential. God as Elohim represents tremendous force, which is no less impressive for it being static, held in readiness, not doing anything at a given moment (in Rashi: promise). As against that, HWYH represents Being, that which is dynamic, vital, in action, realized potential (in Rashi: the fulfillment of promises).

Tribes, Good and Bad

Following the festive promise of redemption at the beginning of the parsha, the Torah interposes a fragmentary genealogy of the offspring of Jacob, including onpy the fusrt three sons, through Levi. This interrupts the flow of narrative, so much so that the Torah later picks up thread by repeating the gist of 6:10-12 in vv. 29-30. Why does it do this?

6:14. “These are the heads of the clans [lit., father’s houses].” Rashi: Since he needed to give the pedigree of the tribe of Levi down to Moses and Aaron, for the sake of Moses and Aaron, it began by giving all the pedigrees through their offspring, from Reuven on. And in Pesikta Rabbati, since our Father Jacob upbraided these three tribes at the time of his death, Scripture returns and here gives their pedigree alone, to show that they were important.

Rashi—again, rather typically of his method of work—gives two answers. The firsts is a peshat, common-sense explanation of the literary method of the Torah: it needs to provide the background as to whom Moses and Aaron are and where they come from (remember the anonymous way in which his parents were identified in the birth story, 2:1 ff.), and to do so it has to go back to the family of Jacob, following the order if their birth through Levi.

The second answer is more midrashic: as these tribes were subjected to criticism in Jacob’s Blessing (Gen 49:3-7), the Torah here leans over backwards, so to speak, to suggest that they weren’t so bad after all, here mentioning them alone, thereby giving them special emphasis.

SHEMOT: Postscript

Some further thoughts about the birth of Moses, discussed last week: unlike other birth accounts in the Bible (Yitzhak, Jacob & Esau, Samuel, Samson), which involved the mother’s previous barrenness, here Yokheved. This explains Rashi’s comment on 2:1, which I overlooked earlier, and which is actually rather interesting. There is a real difficulty in that verse, given what we know: why are we told that “a man from the house of Levi went and took a daughter of Levi” when they already have two children, Aaron and Miriam? Thus, this verse must have a particular significance: namely, that he had withdrawn from marital life with her or even divorced her, because of Pharaoh’s decree, feeling that there was no point in living with a woman and making her pregnant, simply so that any future child could be killed. Here, he took her back—according to the Midrash, at the counsel of Miriam, who persuaded him that there might yet be hope.

Unlike Otto Rank’s theory, in which it’s all about the child fantasizing about better” parents, here the child was very much attached to his birth parents, and rejected the royal foster parents. Indeed, the whole story should be read as a celebration of the oppressed, the downtrodden, and their getting their comeuppance against the high and mighty: first through the child surviving; second, through his birth mother being able to nurse him at least through infancy; and third, through his use of the privileges gained in the royal household to free his people and get back at the wicked Pharaoh.

But he didn’t entirely reject his foster parents. There is a whole group of midrashim which celebrate Batya daughter of Pharaoh as a model of compassion and ordinary human feeling. According to b. Megilah 13a, she is even identified with Kaleb ben Yefuneh’s “Jewish wife” mentioned in 1 Chronicles 4:18 (this is of special interest to me because she is in turn the mother of Avi-Gedor, which in the truncated form of “Avigdor” was my father’s name).

Apropos of Nothing

This past week I had an interesting and significant email exchange. Apropos a comment I made on a list-serve group about the uglier side of certain recent rabbinic rulings and policies (to be discussed another time), I received the following note:

I will confess to you, that I am increasing convinced that kedusha [holiness] and orthodoxy are at odds, and I have a choice to make: Gd or Orthodoxy.

My response was as follows:

It was sad to read your note, but I can identify with your sentiments. Nevertheless, I think you need to draw a clear distinction between Orthodoxy as a sociological and institutional nexus, and Orthodoxy as the basic idea that to be a good Jew means to observe Torah and mitzvot, as these have traditionally been understood.

Nehama Leibowitz, with whom I had the privilege of studying in my younger years, used to say that one of the basic mistakes people make is to blame religion for the faults of religious people. The Torah seeks to perfect human beings; the fact that even the most pious, as a group, are far from perfect, doesn’t mean that the Torah is “wrong,” or even that it “doesn’t work,” but simply that human beings are, by nature, far from perfect.

And then, among all hypocritical and cruel and stupid religious people, including rabbis, you meet an authentic Tzaddik, whom the Torah has shaped into something really special… and that can make all the difference.


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