Va’era: E pluribus unum?

Va’era: E pluribus unum?

I just came back from sitting on a bet din writing a few gittin (divorce documents) in which every name by which the person and their parents are known must be included. This is crucial, because despite the fact that one’s basketball buddies might call you “Lou” while your boss at work calls you “Schwartz” and your mother still calls you “Louis,” when you get divorced there should be no mistaking the fact that all these different names refer to the same person and that all of them are now divorced.

We don’t think of God this way, usually. God is one, unitary. But in this week’s Torah portion, Va’era, God tells Moses that God’s names are multiple. God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am YHWH. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but my name YHWH I did not make known to them.” This seems strange, no? You meet a person at a cocktail party or on a cruise or at work, and you only can “see” them partially, in one aspect. But that should not be the case with God, who is invisible and completely different from us. Isn’t God immune to being mistook or only understood in pieces? Isn’t God one? It’s not as if there were a public face or mask God wears when hanging out with his bigoted friends at the Country Club, while the truer and more sensitive personality is only revealed when alone with one’s closest childhood friends!

This is the essence of a question posed by the Maggid of Koznitz: If God was complete and whole at the time of the world’s creation, what new behaviors should be able to be discovered ever regarding God?

The Slonimer Rebbe writes in his work Netivot Shalom that it’s not God who is changing but our knowledge of God. Until the Exodus from Egypt, people had no idea how horrible slavery was and how far God would go to uproot it. It’s not really a name that is at stake, but the type of world that name represents. Even though the laws of physics do not change from day to day, we find that the conception of them can — and does — change. Believing that any long- and deeply-held verities actually encapsulate the entirety of truth is the very definition of idolatry!

As I write these words, Donald Trump is being sworn in as the new president of the United States. On the one hand, it seems ridiculous to believe that things will change simply because a new pharaoh has arisen. Yet it is clear, says the Netivot Shalom, that there constantly arise opportunities and challenges in which we human beings are called to help God reveal new faces — in effect, new worlds.

This is not because God is new, but because we are presented these opportunities by God to have a hand in the unfolding of history. Daily, we have the chance to pursue mitzvot that yesterday were unavailable to us. We must constantly be on the lookout for people who need our help, whom we are uniquely positioned to assist, whether we wear a safety pin or an American flag pin. This is the promise of a new era: opportunity after opportunity to become someone greater than we have heretofore been.

I am inclined to like this week’s Torah portion, Va’era, because it was my bar mitzvah parasha. At the time, I had no inkling about the future. I had no idea that I would become a rabbi, but I also had no idea that the Holy Blessed One, Hakadosh Baruch Hu, would think so highly of me as to present me, over and over, with chances to become the bar mitzvah boy I suspect I may yet become. With God’s continued prodding, I may one day make it! Hopefully, we will all look deeper into such challenges as new worlds that need our help to continue to unfold. Whether the new world is a new family arrangement or a new political administration, we — this moment — are being called to reveal new aspects of holiness no one may have ever expected before. May we be part of bringing to light more and more of God’s Unity as our lives progress. Shabbat Shalom.

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