Divrei Torah by Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
This week’s Torah portion, Va’era, begins as G-d speaks to Moses explaining how G-d will redeem the Israelites. It opens with the words, “G-d spoke to Moses and said to him, I am Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai but I did not make myself known to them by my name Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh.(Ex. 6:2-4) G-d reveals that the ancestors knew G-d by one name, El Shaddai, which seems to allude to a different quality of their relationship. Now, G-d reveals a new name to Moses that speaks to a new way in which the Divine will be known in the world.
Let us also recall that in last week’s Torah portion, Moses stands at the burning bush and asks the Divine Presence for a name to bring back to the Israelites. G-d responds saying, “my name shall be Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh (I will be which I will be) and this will be my name forever!”
What is the meaning of these different names for G-d? Why are they changing? What do they reveal about the changing relationship with G-d and why is it necessary to reveal this to Moses at this time?
Beginning with the name El Shaddai, the name known to our ancestors, midrash explains its meaning by parsing the word Shaddai into Sheh-dai meaning ‘that is enough.’ El Shaddai would then mean ‘the G-d who is enough.’ This is the G-d who meets the needs of the ancestors the way a mother nurses her child. In Hebrew the word for breast is shad, so we can also read El Shaddai as ‘G-d my breast.’ There is a midrash that states that when G-d created the world, the universe expanded until, at a certain point, G-d spoke the word dai meaning enough, and the expansion ceased. El Shaddai is the G-d known to the ancestors who were sustained with just enough, in a world that was limited by the boundaries fashioned by G-d.
Once the Israelite family descended into Egypt where they were eventually enslaved, they no longer remained in relationship with El Shaddai. For them, there was not enough, there was no comforting breast or limit to their suffering. When Moses brings the news of the coming redemption, they cannot accept it for they are kotzer ruach/short of breath and crushed in spirit. They are so weakened that they cannot even imagine the possibility for change. It is for them specifically that
G-d tells Moses to relate a new name. The new name is Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh/I Will Be That Which I Will be. In this name G-d communicates a new concept and a new relationship. G-d includes all possibilities of being. This is the G-d who is not locked into past patterns and forms. This is the G-d of all potentialities.
But this name is not yet enough to impact the Israelites and gain their partnership in the process of redemption. In this portion G-d presents a new name- Yud-Heh- Vav-Heh- the name which includes all of time. It is a name that speaks of the Eternal, for in its root are the Hebrew words for was (hayah), is (hoveh) and will be (yihiyeh). This is a name that includes all potentialities of Being throughout all of time. Unlike the quality of Shaddai, this name reveals the transformative power of the One who will undo all limits, turn the natural world upside down, lift up the lowly, free the slaves and open the sea to dry land. This is the Master of All Transformations throughout time and space, the Maker of Miracles. This is the face of G-d that will become known to the Israelites, the Egyptians and all of humanity.
When God announces G-d’s Self here as Y-H-V-H- the Eternal Potentiality of all that ever was, is and will be, God announces Divinity as the ground of All Being in Eternal Process. This is the face of God that makes all change possible, that makes redemption possible. And this quality of G-d is the transformative capacity implanted in each human being and in all of life. For all of life is transformation.
This is so very hard for us to remember. We are impatient. We want change yesterday. We see suffering and injustice and we long for a peaceful world. Our greatest enemies are cynicism and despondency, which can also be called kotzer ruach/ crushed spirit. The Hasidic Masters teach us repeatedly that each human being contains a Divine root, a holy spark of Elohut- Godliness which is our capacity to change and build a transformed world. I am reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. whose birthday approaches. It is this transformational aspect of God that Martin Luther King understood as the root of humanity and he was willing to bet his life on it. He said, “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”
I was so deeply heartened yesterday by the images of our newly transformed House of Representatives. To see a chamber filled with women, people of color and Native Americans representing our diverse nation, brought tears to my eyes. YES! We have much work to do to realize the kind of world we want to see. This week and every day let us rejoice in the transformative face of G-d revealed to our ancestors and to us through the ever-unfolding process of a world becoming. As MLK once said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Darkness comes in many forms; physical darkness, emotional darkness, intellectual darkness and spiritual darkness. Our festival of Chanukah was established at the darkest time of the year. In December we encounter the shortest day, a day with the least sunshine of the entire year. And as Chanukah begins on the 25th day of the lunar month, during the waning moon cycle, the nights are also their darkest.
At this time of year when we turn inward, when cold and darkness are abundant, the Rabbis, created this festival of light, as if, in answer to our yearning for light and warmth. The beauty of the Jewish calendar reveals the ever-changing nature of life and gives us spiritual tools to navigate these changes. In the winter season of shortened daylight, lest we fall into despair, we kindle lights for eight nights. We are reminded that the light is returning, that the light in fact, always returns. We nurture an attitude of trust in the returning light even when there is an abundance of apparent darkness.
Unlike all biblically-based holidays, there is no Havdalah, no ritual of separation to divide between Chanukah and the rest of the year. Rabbi Dovber Pinson teaches that this is because spiritual light and the quality of trust are always available to us at any time, in any day, week or year.
At Chanukah, in particular, we are reminded of the spiritual power of trust. We are nourished on the story of a small band of people and a small cruise of oil that defied the odds and restored light within the apparent darkness of that time. It was through the Maccabees trust in their spiritual mission that they persisted and were victorious.
Alan Morinis describes the quality of bitachon/trust in this way: Bitachon gives us the capacity to act fearlessly. A heart cannot hold both fear and trust at the same time. When we cultivate trust, we inevitably loosen the grip fear holds on our heart. Living with a sense of trust in the unfolding of life’s events, allows us to become fearless and loving human beings. Bitachon is the inner attitude that respects that whatever is happening in our lives is nothing more or less than the curriculum given to us, that brings us to the threshold of growth that we would likely never otherwise approach.
As we read the continuing story of Joseph in the Torah this week, we see the evolution of his character into one who has come to trust in the unfolding of his destiny. Despite the pain of his situation, his exile from his family, his long imprisonment, Joseph displays an attitude of trust that all of his hardships were ultimately for a higher good. And it is this quality that will allow him to forgive his brothers and achieve peace, finally, peace in their family.
Joseph expresses trust in the unfolding of a plan that is greater than himself or any of the other players. Somehow, from the dungeon of his experience he has come to trust in the presence of the Divine in the unfolding of his life and the circumstances around him. Trust is one of Joseph’s great teachings - not blind trust or passivity that relinquishes responsibility, but rather, trust as a foundation from which one can act with intent and purpose.
It is Joseph’s inner quality of bitachon/trust that makes it possible to perceive the deeper truth of plenty in the face of scarcity. Joseph will interpret Pharaoh’s two dreams as one in the same. There will be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, but Joseph will supply the solution to the years of famine. By storing up the grain in the years of plenty, there will be enough to feed the people in the years of famine. Joseph is able to see that even in times of scarcity there can still be abundance. It is the faculty of trust in G-d, trust in the ever-changing nature of life and trust in the goodness of this world that allows his vision to expand. He can see what others cannot and it is through his expanded vision that he can create and execute a successful plan for redemption.
In Hebrew the word bitachon means trust but it also means security, for true security is ultimately a state of mind, a state of being. As we light the Chanukah candles this year, as we move more deeply into this season of winter, let us try to cultivate the quality of trust. May we find in our challenges, whether personal or collective, an opportunity to stretch ourselves a little bit further. The constriction of fear is lifted through the expansion of trust. Then, our vision can broaden and solutions, otherwise hidden will inevitably appear.
May it be so.
The Joseph cycle is the longest consecutive story of a Torah personality in the book of Genesis. Joseph will go through trials and will transform from a rather braggadocious young man into a powerful and forgiving leader. Hazal- the Rabbinic authorities of our tradition describe him in two ways: Joseph the Dreamer and Joseph the Tzaddik/Righteous.
At first, Joseph the Dreamer is a channel who receives information through dreams. As a young man, he uses these dreams in ways that foment jealousy and enmity between himself and his brothers. As long as Joseph connects to the dream in order to inflate himself and his role in the family, he will experience suffering. Joseph will be taken down in many ways throughout his story. He will descend to Egypt, be sold as a slave and eventually will be imprisoned for twenty years. His experiences as slave, a servant and a prisoner are all profoundly humbling. During his time in prison he will learn to use his gifts for the sake of others. He will discover that his gift for dream interpretation is not his own doing. He will tell Pharaoh’s Baker, Cup-Bearer and eventually Pharaoh himself that it is not he who provides the interpretations, it is G-d who makes it known.
Joseph will constrict the needs of his own ego and become a true servant of the process unfolding before him. It is through this development of his inner character and constriction of his ego, that he will ultimately become the redeemer of his time and place.
Joseph the Tzaddik/Righteous is so named because he is able to control his sexual desires. He is a man in charge of his master’s household, but more importantly, he is in charge of himself. Torah tells the story of the daily attempts by Mrs. Potifar to seduce Joseph. When finally, Master Potifar is away from home, she takes her chance once again and like before, Joseph refuses her. He is able to master his strongest urges and it is for this reason that our Rabbinic tradition conveys upon him the title of tzaddik/righteous, the saint.
In the mystical tradition of Kabbalah, Joseph is associated with the sephirah (the aspect of G-d) known as yesod. This is the quality understood as the creative foundation for life. Josef represents yesod because he provides the foundation for the sustenance of his society by storing grain and then dispenses it during a time of famine, saving countless lives. This sephirah is also represented anatomically by the phallus for it is the organ that provides the seeds, the foundation for life. And yet, we also know that this organ can also be used as a weapon and a force of destructive power. In this sense Joseph represents this sephirah for he was able to master his own urges. His refusal to give in to the seduction of Mrs. Potifar is seen by our tradition as his great moment of mastery and righteousness. He is in charge of himself, his body and his desires. He will not cross the moral line of betraying his Master. He is a loyal servant.
One cannot deny a certain kind of biblical poetry here, as this story follows one of the lowest moments in the story of Jacob’s family; the rape of Joseph’s sister Dinah and the rash violent retribution enacted on the men of Shechem. Let us recall that in last week’s Torah portion, Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah went out of her camp and was raped by the Shechem, the Hivvite Prince of the land. We are told that after the rape, Shechem fell in love with Dinah and wanted to marry her. Jacob agreed on the condition that all the men in their land be circumcised. This alone is an interesting response to the rape and abuse of power by Shechem. Jacob demands circumcision for him, his father and all the men of the community in response to an act of violence perpetrated through this bodily organ. At this point the story can read as a karmic tale of justice, until Jacob’s sons, Shimon and Levi react with a violent rampage. In the middle of the night, three days after this mass circumcision when the men are at their weakest, Shimon and Levi murder all the men of Shechem. What begins as a tale of one man’s abuse of power over one woman becomes a gruesome tale of male rage that leads to a violent pogrom, the slaughter of a community.
In contrast, Torah now presents the story of a young man who controls his libido so as not to betray his master. It is this single act, in contrast to Shechem and the violent rampage by Joseph’s brothers, that our Rabbinic tradition holds up as a symbol of great righteousness.
I have difficulty with this. The glorification of Joseph to saintly status because he behaved like a mentsch and didn’t sleep with his master’s wife, seems a rather low standard for sainthood. The Torah itself never refers to Joseph as a tzaddik. It is the later tradition of rabbinic commentary written by men, for men that provides this singular lens.
As abuses of power continue throughout our world and in our society, we must challenge the assumptions under which we live. As a woman Rabbi who has willingly, but not without great inner challenge, taken a seat within the stream of rabbinic tradition, I must challenge the rabbinic assumptions that have shaped our understanding of Torah. We are in great need of new commentaries. We are in need of women’s voices in places of power and in the shaping of a society wherein controlling one’s sexual desires is not a mark of sainthood but a baseline level of human decency.
I am so thankful for the courage of individuals who have stood up and told their stories, catalyzing the #Me too movement. I am a part of that movement for like so many others, I too have experienced the brutal abusive power of men trying to take what was not theirs. This story is as old as time and what amazes me, is that women are finally being heard, claiming power, being elected into offices and shaping a new narrative. We have come a long way and there is much work to do but let us acknowledge that there is a re-balancing process at work right now.
I am thankful for a Torah that teaches that it is possible for an arrogant youth to transform, humble himself, control his sexual desires and act like a mentsch. Thank you, Joseph, for controlling yourself. Thank you, Joseph, for elevating your low dream of personal greatness to the high dream of saving your people; for recognizing that your descent and your elevation were meant to serve a higher purpose, for becoming the true servant for the welfare of the people.
I am thankful for a tradition that is fluid enough to allow women to take their place as spiritual leaders and contribute to the many voices of interpretation that strengthen our Judaism.
May we all strive to find the courage, humility and inner control to serve the highest dream of our diverse society. May we discover what it means to be a servant of the highest good.
Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
Rabba Kaya served as Interim Rabbi of RJC from October 2017 through June 2019.
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