This week, Moses and the Israelites are deeply discouraged. Following God’s instructions, Moses and Aaron have approached Pharaoh and asked him, in God’s name, to “Let My people go!” Not only has Pharaoh refused to let the people go, he has also increased their quota of bricks. The people blame Moses, and Moses complains to God that despite God’s guidance, things have gotten worse. God reassures Moses that all will be well, but Moses seems unconvinced.
This is the context in which this week’s portion, Va’era, begins, saying, “God spoke to Moses and said to him, ‘I am the LORD’” (Exodus 6:2). God identifies God’s self to Moses with the unpronounceable four-letter name of God, often known as the Tetragrammaton (Greek for “four letters”). Why would God do this, and why now?
The Midrash explains that God has two, somewhat opposing attributes: Justice, represented by the divine name Elohim, and Mercy, represented by the Tetragrammaton. Sometimes God’s attribute of Justice overwhelms God’s attribute of Mercy, and the result is often harsh punishment for those who turn away from God’s ways. Sometimes, though, God’s Mercy overwhelms Justice, and the result is often surprising — a second chance, an unexpected reprieve, a change of heart.
So in our Torah reading, when God identifies God’s self by using the Tetragrammaton, God is emphasizing to Moses that this is a moment when the divine attribute of Mercy is in command. But why do Moses and the Israelites need God’s Mercy? The answer comes later in the reading, after God has again sent Moses to reassure the Israelites that redemption will come. Once again, Moses’s mission is less than successful: “But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, because of shortness of spirit from their cruel bondage” (Exodus 6:9).
Here we see that the problem that the Israelites face is not simply one of discouragement or suffering from hard labor. The Israelites’ spirits are being crushed. Just as a heavy weight on the chest can prevent the lungs from expanding to fill the body with air, so, too, can constant oppression put so much pressure on the spirit that it cannot expand to fill the body with life.
The Israelites’ spirits are shortened, constricted, unable to hold hope or optimism or the possibility of change. They turn on Moses, they turn away from God, and they become blind and deaf to inspiration, not because they are evil, but because they have been pushed beyond the breaking point.
At this moment, God knows that the Israelites do not need to be judged; instead, they need compassion and mercy. So God signals to Moses: “I am the LORD, the Merciful One who surrounds those who cannot find their way, who loves those who are oppressed, and who inspires the hopeless to expand their spirits.” Only when God brings the Israelites the divine attribute of Mercy can they find a way forward together.
In our lives, we encounter many such people who are hopeless, whose spirits have been crushed by the harsh realities that they have lived. Can we reach out to those whose spirits are constricted? Can we help them, through our loving presence, to take a breath, to expand their spirits once again, and to know hope? If we can, then maybe we, too, can find a way forward together.
Rabbi Adam Zeff serves as the rabbi of Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia. Email him at: [email protected] .