Parshat Vaera opens with a stirring speech from God. In response to Moses’s lament at the end of last week’s parasha, “Why have you brought misfortune on this people? Why did you send me?” (Ex. 5:22), God reminds Moses of the covenant with the patriarchs. And God movingly uses the sevenfold language of redemption, constituted by the phrases “I will release you,” “I will deliver you,” “I will redeem you,” “I will take you,” “I am the Lord,” “I will bring you,” and “I will give you”  (Ex. 6:6-8).

Just before God utters this famous passage, God tells Moses that God appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and established the covenant with them. This should be reason enough to redeem the people. But then God goes on to say, “And also I have heard the groaning of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians keep in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant” (v. 5). The “also” here is problematic. Rashi reads it as referring not to an additional reason to redeem the people, but as connecting God’s mention of the covenant with the act of redemption: “Just as I have set up and confirmed the covenant so I must fulfill it. Therefore I have heard the groaning of the children of Israel.”

Nechama Leibowitz understands this passage to reflect her view that the covenant is a one-sided affair: an unconditional promise by God to the people. She therefore dismisses the reading of Ibn Ezra, who understands the “also” in this passage more plainly: “My decision to send you was also prompted by the fact that Israel repented and cried to Me.” As Leibowitz puts it, “There is nothing in this passage or in the revelation at the bush to suggest that Israel’s redemption was prompted by their good deeds and repentance.” Rather, the redemption from Egypt was solely an act of Divine grace.

The question of whether the covenant is conditional or unconditional is one that we have discussed before. While I agree with Leibowitz that the Exodus narrative is one-sided, and that Ibn Ezra’s claim of God responding to actual “repentance” by the people is implausible, I also hold the view that the covenant is simultaneously conditional and unconditional. That’s a paradoxical statement, of course. But, as my Rosh Yeshiva Steve Wald once put it, “It’s religion. It’s supposed to be spooky.”

God’s love for Israel is described variously as that of a parent and a spouse. The spousal relationship is ultimately a conditional, contractual one. We strive to make it unconditional, but at the end of the day the possibility always exists of dissolving the union through divorce–an act which itself can be overturned through the process of reconciliation. In some way the spousal relationship is always a back-and-forth of living as though love is unconditional while being aware of the underlying fact that it isn’t.

Parental love is more towards the unconditional side. “Be merciful like a father is merciful to his children,” we say during the High Holidays. The unconditional nature of parental love makes forgiveness and grace endlessly possible. Yet the challenge to parents is to relate to their children both with unconditional love and with expectations and conditions–this is the process of child-rearing, tza’ar gidul banim. Seeing the relationship of God and Israel in this way, God is infinitely merciful and graceful, but God also wants us to grow up.

While the Exodus narrative here emphasizes the patriarchal, fatherly nature of God’s unconditional and unilateral love for Israel, the ambiguity of the phrase “and also,” which leads to Ibn Ezra’s statement about the people’s repentance or turning back to God, is a reminder that a relationship is never completely one-sided. Israel has to be ready to leave. The fact that they groan under their labors is a significant fact–because it means they have recognized they’ve reached rock-bottom. God takes note, and the Exodus begins.

Shabbat shalom.

When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I, I did not know.” He was afraid and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.'” (Gen. 28:16-17)

There is a powerful sense of collapsing time and space that happens in this moment of Jacob’s journey. The place where Jacob slept, it turns out, is none other than Mount Moriah, the Temple Mount, the axis mundi, the center of the world. But Jacob was unaware, and the reality had to come to him. As Rashi famously interprets, Mount Moriah was lifted out of place in order to come and meet Jacob on the way. The text itself implies something out of the ordinary, when it says vayifga bamakom–connoting more than simply “he happened upon the place,” but something akin to “he exploded upon the place.” And time seems to stop for a moment–as it does so rarely in the story of Jacob, who seems constantly to be in motion. God promises Jacob that this place will be the possession of his descendants, and all of us are thereby included in the moment.

But there is more significance to Jacob’s statement: “Achen yesh Hashem bamakom hazeh, v’anochi lo yadati;” “Surely God is in this place, and I, I did not know.” How could he not have known?! Perhaps it is precisely because Jacob is always in a hurry, always on the move. It is the story of his life. As Rashi will remind us in a couple of weeks at the beginning of Parshat Vayeshev, Jacob never really gets any peace in his lifetime. And so even at this moment, when he is passing through the spot that has meant so much in the life of his family and will mean so much in the lives of his descendants, he can’t slow down to notice.

V’anochi lo yadati: And I, I did not know. Simply speaking, this seems to refer to the previous clause: What did Jacob not know? That God was in this place. But a more elastic (Hasidic) reading reveals two more possibilities: God was in this place. Period. V’anochi lo yadati: And I did not know anochi. Anochi here could refer to myself, as in “I didn’t know myself before this moment.” Or it could refer to Anochi, God, the same Anochi that speaks at Sinai. “I did not know myself. And I did not know God.” Before this moment, Jacob says, I had no awareness of who I was or the nature of my relationship with the Divine.

The Piaczezner Rebbe, in his work Derekh Hamelech, elaborates on this point. “The knowledge of God is not some external exercise of the mind alone, like other kinds of knowledge which can be forgotten or hidden when one thinks about other things. Rather, it must enter into his soul and become part of his essence, like the knowledge of his own essence. And it must be with him all the time, whether he is asleep or awake. And it must function as part of all his other knowledge, so that through his knowledge he will recognize God.” (Derekh Hamelech, Vayetzei) When Jacob says he didn’t know God and did not know himself, he means that he did not yet cultivate in himself the ability to be aware of God’s full presence, or his own.

The Piaczezner emphasizes the practice of hashkatah, quieting the mind. To truly pray, and to truly hear the voice of God and our own voices, we have to slow down. Young Jacob is a man in motion, a person on the run. We can imagine him holding a cell phone, making deals, regularly checking Esau’s Facebook status. He has not yet learned the discipline of awareness, of quiet. He has not yet learned to recognize that God is in all places, and that we, we can know–if only we give ourselves the time and space and skill to look.

Shabbat shalom.


The Talmud (Brachot 45a) records the following discussion: From where do we know that, in the ancient practice of reading the Torah, when an interpreter would translate the Hebrew words of the Torah reader into Aramaic, the interpreter was not allowed to raise his voice above the level of the reader? From the verse: “Moses spoke, and God answered him in a voice.” What does the text mean when it says “in a voice?” asks the Talmud. “The voice of Moses,” meaning the same volume as Moses’s voice.

The medieval commentary of the Tosafot, among others, asks an important question on this statement: If the relationships in the metaphor work like this: Speaker is to Moses as Interpreter is to God, how can the Talmud say such a thing? How can the Talmud imply that God is not the speaker at the moment of revelation, but merely the interpreter? Tosafot, following the explanation of Rabbi Yitzhak Alfasi (Rif) answers that God spoke to Moses in a loud voice, and Moses would then answer God in a loud voice—and yet God would still speak loudly so that Moses’s voice would not be louder than God’s.

Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner, author of the 19th century Hassidic work Mei Hashiloach and known as the Ishbitzer Rebbe, offers his own understanding of this reading. The Ishbitzer points out that God could simply inscribe the words of Torah directly on the hearts of the Israelites. Why then does God need Moses in the first place? Why speak? Why not simply communicate directly to the people’s hearts? He answers that, in essence, God performs an act of tzimtzum, divine contraction, in order to make space for Moses to achieve the spiritual heights that Moses achieves. God allows revelation to occur not through supernatural communication, but through the natural, physical process of speech and hearing, complete with all its deficiencies and ambiguities, with the need for interpretation and translation inherent in any act of human communication. In so doing, God allows for the gap between divine and human in which human becoming—as epitomized by Moses—can take place.

An even more radical reading comes from Prof. Art Green in his book Seek My Face, in which he goes back to the statement in the Talmud that “God spoke in the voice of Moses.” Though the Talmud seems to mean that God spoke at the same volume level as Moses, Art reads the line at face value: God actually spoke in the voice of Moses. That is, at the moment of revelation, the voice of God and the voice of Moses were identical, indistinguishable. Art thus takes the Ishbitzer one step further, making the gap between divine and human even more tantalizingly close.
And yet the gap persists. No matter how close or far we may posit God, no matter where on the Maimonidean to Hasidic spectrum we may lie, the whole concept of revelation rests on the notion that there is something beyond what we experience—something deeper, something richer, something truer. Whether God is far away in heaven or at the threshold of our lips, God is still beyond us, calling us to be something more than what we are and yet something we are capable of being.

Shabbat shalom.