Fire and Ice
The second book of Moses is the Book of Names, and it is in this book that the children of Israel will acquire a new name. After this group emerges from the broken waters of the Sea of Reeds, they will be no longer be merely a large, hungry family but a nation called the Jewish people.
In this week’s portion, Va’era, God will not so much introduce a new name for the divine, since God is already known by two names, Elohim and Adonai, but instead will reveal the meaning of Adonai. This name will be a balm, a reassurance to a people and a leader in despair.
Until this moment, God has appeared, trtu (va’era), only as Elohim, the God of nature. The sun, the moon, and the stars assured our ancestors that God’s hand was in all. But for the Israelites, numb from slavery, the nature or reality of things as they are is unbearable. They no longer hope and they question a God who allows them to suffer so.
Just before the portion begins, Moses challenges God: “Why do you mistreat your people? Why did You send me? As soon as I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he made things worse for these people You have done nothing to help your people”(Ex. 5:22). God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is no longer enough for the Israelites: they need more than a promise to lift them from their disillusion and lack of faith. God will no longer simply appear; now God will show more.
The name, Adonai, first appears in the Torah on the fifth day of creation, when God creates humanity and we become joined with nature: “These are the chronicles of heaven and earth when they were created, on the day Adonai Elohim completed earth and heaven”(Gen: 2:4). Until Moses, the stammerer, confronts God, and says that what you have shown us is not enough, we will not understand the difference between these names. God’s response opens Va’era: “I am Adonai.” Not Elohim, the God of inhumanity, the God of isness, but Adonai, the Keeper of dreams, possibilities, and promises. The divine becomes intimate with Moses’ generation to repair their trust their Creator.
All relationships require trust. Friends and lovers must know that they can speak their truth, their discontent and their desires, to the other, and that their words matter to the listener. The safer we feel the more we allow all of ourselves to be seen, and so it is with Moses and God. Moses trusts God when he speaks his heart. His people are lost in their suffering and will only find their way if they know more of this God than their ancestors.
The first humans may have known the name, Adonai, but until they yearn for its meaning, they do not yet have a moral world. My teacher, Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, says, “We discover meaning not in the calamities assigned as ‘acts of God’ but in the way we direct the course of nature through the exercise of our divinely given intelligence, courage, hope and faith.” If we learn nothing from our pain, if it does not lead us to greater clarity and insight, then we cannot endure our lives. Moses risks by questioning divine judgment, and it is in this risk that the world changes.
Behavior is contagious. When Moses speaks from his heart, he opens the heart of God. Through Moses, meeting face to face with the Presence in the clear light of morning, God learns more about the nature of human beings. Now the Eternal knows that humanity is ready to understand an evolving universe in which God is more than the laws of nature: God is also wonder and possibility. This is the dawn of another step human beings will take in being partners with God in perfecting the world.
Just as God drew Adam, Noah, and Abraham close to reveal the holy through the laws of nature, now God will defy the laws of nature to demonstrate that the laws of nature are simply part of creation. We not only learn about God through this exercise. Because we are made in the divine image, the more we see of God, the more we gain a knowledge of ourselves. Through deeds rather than words, with Moses as the vessel, the laws of nature will be turned upside down through ghastly, unnatural phenomena inflicted upon the Egyptians. God will tell Moses not to go to Pharaoh but to come to him, because Moses must join with him, influence him, to free the Jews. But Moses fails because Pharaoh’s hard heart makes him blind and deaf to the cries of the people and their leader. Shmot Rabbah (7:13-14) describes a hardened heart as angry. Scf means hard or heavy but it is also the name of the liver which, according to the ancient world, was the seat of anger. God has hardened Pharaoh’s heart not by casting a spell but by creating human beings to choose their steps: good deeds lead to good deeds and vice versa. Once a heart habituates itself to one path or the other, God does not stop the direction, because all is in the hands of God but the fear of God. If Adonai brings possibility, anything, good or bad, can happen. Each time Pharaoh responds to Moses’ plea with anger and stubbornness, he steps farther away from his ability to act with compassion, and so his choice enslaves him.
Only through human beings can Adonai participate in earthly transformation. And so the plagues begin, not so much as punishment but as moral education: they will instill the knowledge of God in all who witness them. Because of his connection to earth and heaven, Moses will deliver the aerial plagues of fiery hail, locusts, and darkness. R. Tanhuma explains that Moses does not participate in two of the plagues: he does contaminate the Nile with blood because it was in that river that he was saved, and he does not bring lice which began with dust, because it was with dust that Moses covered the Egyptian taskmaster that he had slain.
Despite their cosmic surprise, the first six plagues flow logically through nature (Abarbanel). The first plague is the bloody Nile, life source of the Egyptians. The second plague, frogs, flee the river and bring the third plague, gnats. These insects attract the fourth plague, wild animals, who die of the fifth plague, pestilence, which leads to the sixth plague, boils.
The seventh plague, however, is the ultimate defiance of nature. Here, hail the size of snowballs envelops fire and crashes upon the earth. “It was like [the light in] the glass in which water and oil are mixed together, and the light burns within. Imagine two fierce legions who were always at war with one another, but when the king needed their services for his own battle, he made peace between them, so that both should carry out the orders of the king (Rabbi Nehemiah).
Va’era describes only the first seven plagues, which the Maharal sees as a correspondence to creation: seven steps to creation, seven steps to destruction, all from the same Source.
Pharaoh’s recognition of God after the seventh plague–“Hail and fire flashing up amidst the hail” (Ex. 9:24)–makes clear that the plagues have done their job: God has been revealed to the world. Pharaoh admits, “I have sinned this time; Adonai is righteous and my people are wicked”(Sh. 9:27).
Yet Pharaoh will not be convinced for long, because he is like the part of us that demands to be free, that rules others but refuses to surrender to anything or anyone. This is the part that relies on no one, has no teacher, and believes that we have no equal in knowledge. One Midrash imagines that Pharaoh was the sole survivor at the Sea of Reeds, because he was not to die but to be transformed. So it is with us. We cannot kill the darkness within us, but with the help of Adonai, our flaws can become teachers. When we choose to learn from our mistakes and wrongdoings, i.e. we do teshuvah, and alter our path, we find ourselves no longer walking with Pharaoh but with God.