Parshat Va’eira (2013)


Parshat Vayeira
Exodus 6:1 – 9:35

What Do We Understand About G-d More Than the Patriarchs Did? His Name!

In this weeks parsha we find an amazing transition in the way the Torah refers to G-d. We see G-d Himself pointing out the progression in name and in thought here at the head of this week’s parsha:

“G-d spoke to Moses

and said to him:

I am Havayah

| Vayedaber Elohim el-Mosheh

| vayomer elav

| Ani Adonai.

Exodus 6:2

G-d begins to have an almost personal relationship with the people, and therefore at this point we see the Torah taking up the regular use of The Name (יהוה) HavayahHaShem, the ineffable name of G-d. We pronounce this Name as Adonai – as My Lord – when we pray. But we do not dare to pronounce it as written, ever keeping in our mind the reality that His Name bears the weight of authority of the G-d of all creation. It’s something strong and amazing.

Menorah Sheviti in ColorRashi in his commentary on the Torah also stresses the awesomeness of the Name of G-d. But of all the things that he chooses to focus on, the one attribute that he feels he must relate in his elucidation upon this Name is the faithfulness of G-d. Rashi says Havayah means, “Ne’ehman l’shalaim sakar tov lamit hal’kim l’fanai / Faithful to give a good reward to those who walk before me.”

Rashi notes that G-d often just refers to His Name as His reputation in the Torah. When it comes to people doing evil and them being warned of retribution, He merely says “Ani Havayah / I am Hashem.” (Lev. 19:12) When it comes to G-d rewarding those who fulfill the mitzvot – the good deeds of Torah – He says merely “Ani Havayah / I am Hashem.” (Lev. 22:31) G-d is the master of all, who rewards and punishes the good and wicked. He is faithful to repay each appropriately.

Rashi seems to make the point that by G-d’s Name being revealed as Havayah – the great four-letter name, the Tetragrammaton – it was not told to just rattle Pharaoh with His Name, as much as to declare Moses was being sent to fulfill a promise made to the patriarchs. Now the use of this Name was most appropriate and necessary. G-d is the One who hands out the recompense at the end, He is the One who completes the process of justice in this universe.

It is important that we understand this one point, because this is one of the first places that we see G-d referred to as Hashem. There are a few places where the four-letter Name of G-d is used before this point in the Torah, mostly prominently used during the creation story of Genesis chapter 2. But aside from that there are only a few scattered uses. The regular use of the Tetragrammaton does not begin until here, in the Exodus story. Here G-d is declaring that He is not just there at the start of the world, He is also the One who stands to judge things at its end.

G-d seems to point out the dramatic change in the usage of the Divine Name itself with the statement:

“I revealed myself

to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob

as G-d Almighty

but by my name Havayah

I was not known to them.”

| Va’era

| el-Avraham el-Yitzchak ve’el-Ya’akov

| be’El Shadai

| ushmi Adonai

| lo nodati lahem.

Exodus 6:3

This is an amazing statement for us, because there is very little most of us hold more sacred than our heritage. We highly value our connection to the patriarchs and the generations of people before us. People that we don’t mind holding up as examples of extraordinary emeuna – of faithfulness and trustworthiness. So much that we pray after their example, at times of day suggested by them, with prayers flavored with their tone, and said in their merit.

When we invoke the Name of G-d we most often raise their names like in the first blessing of the Shemonei Esrei, our central prayer and service before G-d, we bless Hashem who is our G-d and “elohei Avraham, elohei Yitzchak, v’elohei Yaakov / and the G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Isaac, and the G-d of Jacob…” It’s not just that we hold on to a strange fixation to yeridat hadorot – the idea that the generations before us were at a greater level of character than us today; the generations get smaller. We recognize that they had a special connection to G-d that was very personal and unique, something most of us can never claim to experience in our daily lives. G-d’s interactions with us in our own lives is more subtle. So we intently look to them and their experiences in order to understand our walk before G-d.

Now G-d says an amazing thing here to Moses, who is going to proclaim this message to Pharaoh and the children of Israel in His glorious Name. He says that He revealed Himself to the Patriarchs, but they only understood Him as El Saddai – the Almighty G-d. But by His Name Havayah (יהוה) He was not known, they didn’t understand it. They understood G-d in the general sense as all-powerful, but they didn’t intimately known Him through His glorious Name Havayah.

It is a fantastic statement being made, that G-d is now revealing Himself in a way not previously understood, not even by our saintly forefathers. In a way not even understood by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. As magnificent as this statement is, it can tend to rub us the wrong way the more we consider it. It’s not just out of humility and sensibility to defend of our fathers that calls us to become curious about this verse. It also intellectual honesty that calls this verse out. The textual narrative critically brings our attention to the Torah. As previously noted, the Tetragrammaton is often used in the Genesis 2 during the creation story where G-d is refereed to as Havayah Elohim (יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים) – the L-rd G-d.

There are also verses where the patriarchs make use of the Divine Name. The newly converted Abram calls him “Adonai Havayah (אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה) – My Lord Hashem.” The young Abraham invokes this Name. (see Genesis 15:7) Not only that, it can be seen that G-d revealed His Name as Havayah while speaking to Jacob. “Ani Havayah (יְהוִה) elohei avraham avicha veilohei yitzchak / I am Hashem, the G-d of your father Abraham, and the G-d of Isaac.” (see Genesis 28:13) G-d does not appear to conceal His name to the patriarchs.

Rashi makes note of this, while asking us to pay more subtle attention to the tense in which the above verse is presented.

And the Name Havayah I did not become known to them: It is not written here לֹא הוֹדַעְתִּי, “but My Name Havayah I did not make known to them,” but לֹא נוֹדַעְךְתִּי, “I did not become known.” [I.e.,] I was not recognized by them with My attribute of keeping faith. And by virtue of this trait, He is called by the Name Havayah, [which means that I am] faithful to verify My words, for I made promises to them, but I did not fulfill [them while they were alive].”

ושמי הלא נודעתי להם: לא הודעתי אין כתיב כאן אלא לא נודעתי לא נכרתי להם במדת אמתות שלי שעליה נקרא שמי הנאמן לאמת דברי, שהרי הבטחתים ולא קיימתי:

Rashi for Exodus 6:3

The Rashi brings our attention to the text, saying that it was not written “I did not tell them that Name” but instead says “I had not become known to them by that Name.” G-d was most certainly called by the Name Havayah by the patriarchs, but it was not generally how He was known. And the reason why, Rashi contends, is because this Name is synonymous with faithfulness. They did not generally use this Name because they couldn’t relate to it. It was because G-d made amazing promises to the patriarchs, but He had not yet fulfilled them in their lifetime.

When we consider it this answer is sufficient. It’s true that the Name was rarely used. How could they call Him by a Name they couldn’t relate to? Of course when the Name had the weight of supporting evidence of His faithfulnessne’eman in Hebrew, meaning reliablility – then would this name be regularly employed. This could not be fully recognized by people, enough to call this Name to the remembrance of people, until it bore the weight of awesome evidence. When G-d began to fulfill His promises to the patriarchs, only then would He become known and recognized by His Name Havayah – the Name that means He is faithful. His name demands respect not just because Hashem makes promises, but because He follows through.

If we look back at our other verses that seem to clash with this statement in Exodus 6:3, it should now become clearly evident that when G-d is spoken of before this time it was always qualified with statements that declared that He was a powerful G-d. The word “elohei” or “elohim” is always close by to spell out the point that Hashem is someone’s divinity or that He is the sum of all the divine forces.

If we look back even more carefully we see something further revealed by Abraham that qualifies what he means by the Name Havayah. He points out how he understands Hashem when he used this Name Havayah in prayer:

“And [Abraham] planted a tree

in Beer-Sheva

and called there upon the Name Havayah,

the Everlasting G-d.”

וַיִּטַּע אֶשֶׁל, |

בִּבְאֵר שָׁבַע; |

וַיִּקְרָאשָׁםבְּשֵׁם יְהוָה, |

אֵל עוֹלָם. |

Genesis 21:33

We need to pay special attention to the mental picture that is brought to mind when Abraham used the Name of Hashem. He understood it as being “El olam / the Eternal G-d,” the G-d of all time and space. He recognized G-d more as melech ha-olam, the king of all the universe and world. His first thought was His ability and not how faithful or true to His word our L-rd is. That was something yet to be demonstrated.

Thus we see that only when G-d began to demonstrate His faithfulness did He begin to insist that He be known by this powerful Name. Only then would His Name come with a reputation for dependability and loyalty to fulfill His great promises. Only then could G-d be called by His distinct Name – the Shem haMeforash (יהוה) – with no further clarification.

As we learn this parsha I want us to walk away comforted when we consider our forefathers, and the promises and hopes they aspired to. It is right that we hold them of high regard. However that does not mean that we should look back at their age and develop a sense of disappointment that we don’t experience G-d the way that they did. We might not be people of whom it can be said that like Abraham we walk before and speak with G-d as with a friend, or like Jacob who experienced the Divine in such a way that he felt as though he had seen the face of G-d. You and I might not encounter G-d that way.

Though in these verses from our parsha the Torah reveals a truth to us, that we are living in an age that our patriarchs would long to experience. We might not see and experience G-d in some sort of ethereal glory, but we have been recipients of the promises of G-d made to our ancestors that they never lived to see. G-d has redeemed and blessed us, as their children, in ways that they couldn’t have even imagined.

In this way, our understanding and insight of G-d is something even more impressive than they knew. Being hindsight to and even still benefiting from G-d’s promises that He made to our forefathers, we experience the awesomeness of G-d in a way that even transcends theirs. This is evident in our ability to relate to the Name Havayah. We have the evidence to attest to the attribute of faithfulness ascribed to His Name Havayah.

  • See related articles concerning the Divine Name used as the Shiviti Hashem.
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