Some thoughts and resources for exploring the Torah portion Va-eira — also: Va’eira, Va’era, or Vaera — Exodus 6:2-9:35. This is part of a series of weekly “gathering sources” posts, collecting previous material on the weekly Torah portion, most originally part of a 2009-2010 series called “Opening the Book.”
“…but they did not heed because of shortness of spirit-breath” (Exodus)
“It’s complicated…” (“Wrestling Jerusalem”)
Early on in the Exodus story, we learn that the Hebrew slaves in Egypt were unable to absorb Moses’ message of imminent redemption because of “shortness of breath” or “crushed spirit” due to “hard work” or “cruel bondage” (Exodus 6:9; see note below).
At this point, Moses asks God how it is that he, of “blocked speech,” will be able to communicate God’s message to Pharaoh, when even the Israelites won’t listen to him. The story continues with a strong focus on Pharaoh’s inability to hear, alternately attributed to “stubbornness” (e.g., Ex 7:13) and “hardness of heart” (e.g., Ex 8:11). Hebrew below.
So, at the center of the Exodus story is a massive, multi-faceted failure to communicate: a prophet/leader with blocked speech (more literally: “uncircumcised lips”), slaves who cannot breathe well enough to communicate clearly, and a ruler who cannot even hear his own magicians (Ex 8:15) and servants (Ex 10:7). The story reminds us how difficult it is for communication to succeed across communities and through oppression. And the story warns us of the dangers of failing in those communication attempts.
Aaron Davidman‘s one-man play, “Wrestling Jerusalem” — currently [January 2016] at Mosaic Theater Company of DC — embodies at least 17 different voices, from across Israel and Palestine, in monologue and in argument. Each voice provides a very specific perspective, unique to the conflict he is exploring. Throughout the performance, however, echoes of the U.S. conflict come through loud and clear.
Wrestling Jerusalem and the U.S.
In the play, one Palestinian voice explains that the only Israelis he has met are soldiers who often mistreat him and rarely recognize his humanity. How many people of color in the U.S. have a similar experience with white people?
Many Black communities in the U.S. view police, not as protectors of peace, but as a “White” power structure occupying and terrorizing their neighborhood. Too many people of color know white people only as government representatives and developers ready to view them as problems to be “fixed.”
“Wrestling” characters, alternately inhabiting Davidman’s body, argue about Hamas: Is it a community organization with a strong feeding program? or an armed group bent on the destruction of Israel? Would donations ear-marked for food programs simply enable violent resistance? With minor changes, these same words have been used to discuss the Black Panther Party or the Nation of Islam: Caring for the ‘hood? Or plotting the downfall of the U.S. power structure?
The performance opens with a brilliant “multi-logue” beginning with the pronouncement: “It’s complicated.” Davidman tries to identify the conflict’s start: With the ’67 war? Or 1948 — called either “the Catastophe” or the “War of Independence,” depending on one’s perspective? Maybe with earlier Arab or Jewish violence…or with the British or the Romans? It closes with cries of “If only the world would just leave us alone!” and “If only the world would get involved!”
It’s hard not to hear another set of wrestlers with a parallel litany of “how it started.” Beginning perhaps with Sandra Bland or Trayvon Martin, extending to Emmett Till and Medgar Evers, lives and livelihoods lost in riots of the 20th Century or the 19th, uprisings and mobs of the 18th Century. Then stretching back through U.S. economic dependence on labor of enslaved people and beyond to European views of the “Dark Continent.”
“Help us!” “Leave us alone!”
We might also hear, echoed in the final lines, calls for police to stop “occupying” black neighborhoods and for “Displacement Free” development zones, on the one hand, and on the other, attempts to involve the the U.N. in human rights violations within the United States.
The “Aaron” character of “Wrestling Jerusalem” tells us, as he rides the bus through security checkpoints, that he’s been to Israel many times but never before crossed into Ramallah. Likewise, how many residents of north or west Chicago rarely, if ever, cross 75th Street to the South? How many residents of western Washington, DC, seldom cross the Anacostia River? And, of course, vice versa.
So many other elements of “Wrestling Jerusalem” — from description of inter- generational trauma to discussion of if/when to take up arms — apply equally to the United States. Davidman’s gift to the conflict around Israel is in embodying and weaving together, with respect, so many voices: Arab and Jew, Israeli and Palestinian, settler and soldier, partier, tourist, and long-time Liberal Israeli rabbi. Each is given the floor and heard in turn. In giving them each something of himself as well as their own unique voices, commonality and difference, Davidman helps us listen across conflict and through oppression.
In a sense, “Wrestling Jerusalem” is an antidote for the Exodus’ failures to communicate. May we listen equally well to the many, often-overlooked perspectives of conflict in the United States.
Thanks to Elliot Eder and participants in Fabrangen West and to the LCVY Hill Torah Discussion Group for Exodus insights that inspired these remarks.
Exodus 6:9 וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה כֵּן, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ, וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה.
Moses [delivered God’s message of imminent redemption] to the Children of Israel. But they did not heed Moses, because of shortness of breath and hard work [or crushed spirits due to cruel bondage].
מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַmi-kotzer ruach ruach = “breath” and “spirit” mi-kotzer ruach = “shortness of breath” or “crushed spirit”
וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁהm’avodah kashah avodah = “work,” “bondage,” and “worship” m’avodah kashah = “hard work” or “cruel bondage”
וַיֶּחֱזַק לֵבchazak lev
“stubbornness” (literally: strong of heart; e.g., Ex 7:13)
וְהַכְבֵּד אֶת-לִבּוֹkh’veid et-libo
“hardness of heart” (literally: heavy of heart; e.g., Ex 8:11) BACK
Amram took to wife his father’s sister Jochebed, and she bore him Aaron and Moses; and the span of Amram’s life was 137 years. The sons of Izhar: Korah, Nepheg, and Zichri. The sons of Uzziel: Mishael, Elzapha, and Sithri. Aaron took to wife Elisheba, daughter of Amminadab and sister of Nahshon, and she bore him Nadav and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar. the sons of Korah: Assir, Elkanah, and Abiasaph. Those are the families of the Korahites. And Aaron’s son Eleazar took to wife one of Putiel’s daughters, and she bore him Phinehas. Those are the heads of the ancestral houses of the Levites by their families. Continue reading Va-eira: A Path to Follow
God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am HASHEM [YHVH]. I appeared [va-eira] to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but with My Name HASHEM I did not make myself known [nodha’ti] to them.
—Shemot/Exodus 6:2-3 (Stone translation*)
The Holy Name of Being
Rabbi Shefa Gold writes:
THE BLESSING OF VA-EYRA comes to us as God’s self-revelation. “I am YHVH – I am Being itself. And yes I am the same one that your ancestors perceived as El Shaddai, the very same One. All the names you have called Me are aspects of the One, and now you are ready to receive a glimpse of the Whole, that Unnameable One. [Exodus 6:2]
“You will see Me and know Me through the process of liberation that you are about to experience… Freedom is the key to knowing Me… Through this process I will bring you to fulfillment, to a state where you can receive the divine inheritance, which is the knowledge of the divine spark at your core. I am YHVH. I am Being itself.” [Exodus 6:6-8]
In receiving the blessing of Va-eyra, I place my journey in the context of cosmic process. I know that every tragedy I suffer and every delight I enjoy moves me towards the fulfillment of the divine promise. As each face of God appears to me, I can see it in the greater context of the One. Each day in my prayers I can remember (with the Sh’ma3 ) that all conceptions of God (Eloheynu) are aspects of YHVH, which is Being itself. Continue reading Va-eira: More Great Sources
God [Elohim] spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am HASHEM [YHVH]. I appeared [va-eira] to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but with My Name [u-shemi] HASHEM I did not make myself known [nodha’ti] to them.
—Shemot/Exodus 6:2-3 (Stone translation*)
There is a raft of commentary on just these two verses. Nechama Leibowitz, for example, directs two of her six essays on this portion — in New Studies in Shemot/Exodus* –to these first two verses, discussing many classical, and a few contemporary, commentaries along the way.
Some commentary focuses on the variety of names for God — Elohim, El Shaddai and YHVH — used in this brief span. Some, the verb nodhati, “made myself known.” Cassuto combines several of these themes in his commentary*:
…This enables us to understand the text before us clearly: I revealed Myself (God declares) to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in My aspect that finds expression in the name Shaddi, and I made them fruitful and multiplied them and gave them children and children’s children, but by the name YHWH (the word shemi [‘My name’] is to be construed here as an accusative of nearer definition, and signifies ‘by My name’), in My character as expressed by this designation, I was not known to them, that is, it was not given to them to recognize Me as One that fulfills His promises, because the assurance with regard to possession of the Land, which I had given them, I had not yet fulfilled….
Some teachers take a more inward approach to the meaning and experience of ‘knowing’ the Name. See More Great Sources: The Holy Name of Being.
The “Opening the Book” series was originally presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group that for many years pursued spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.