Guest D’var Torah: Parsha Va’era

The Plague of Flies, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (French, 1836-1902), gouache on board, 6 15/16 x 7 3/8 in. (17.6 x 18.7 cm), at the Jewish Museum, New York

In last week’s Parsha, Sh’mot, God speaks to Moses out of the bush that burned but was not consumed. This most dramatic moment in Moses’ life became an important teaching ever since because it let all people know that God can communicate with humans from anything, even from a bush, and from anywhere, even in the desert which seems to be god-forsaken. In this week’s Parsha, Va’era, God directly speaks to Moses and actually gives an insight in the way that the Divine appears to humans. As it says  in Exodus chapter 6,  “And God spoke to Moses and said to him: ‘I am Adonai; and I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and Jacob, as God Almighty, but by My name יהוה I made Me not known to them.”

While this revelation lets Moses know that God can appear to different people in different ways by many names; the bottom line is that God does confirm and affirm that the Divine can and does make Itself known. This revelation is important for Moses. He is desperately looking for the assurance from God that the Divine will be with him as he and his brother Aaron are about to appear before the most powerful man in their world. I am sure he was filled with fear and trembling at this assignment from God. After all, earlier he tried to talk God out of it when Moses was first asked by God to go before Pharaoh and make the demands that God wanted him to place before the Egyptian King.

As for Moses’ forbears Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their spouses, as for all biblical personalities who come after, as well as for all human beings since, there is an innate desire and need to believe that God is with a person for strength, courage, wisdom to face in life what needs to be faced. These desires and needs are met when they can either see, feel, and/or hear that God is with them. For many people, life is a search for the presence of God in their lives. For a person to know God is with him or her can give great comfort during times of loss and pain, as well as strength when decisions need to be made and the correct path to them is not clearMost of us spend our lives looking for God and hope that somehow God will make an appearance in our lives to answer our prayers and fulfill our needs. For those who have had the experience of God in their lives, sometimes there is the fear that God will not always be there for them and therefore might abandon them as a parent might abandon their child. This fear is certainly reflected in the moving words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”It is, however, at these moments when we are looking for God in our lives, or those moments when we fear we have lost God’s presence in our lives, that by just saying to ourselves, “God is with me, I have nothing to fear,” we will receive the assurance of God’s presence. The words from Isaiah 41 offer to us this insight as it is written, “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be afraid, for I am your God. I will strengthen you; I will surely help you; I will uphold you with My right hand of righteousness.”

I recall the time during my years as a chaplain at a cancer hospital in NYC, when I was asked to visit a young man, whose name was Gary. Gary was 19 years old and dying of Leukemia. I walked into his room and saw him lying in his bed, eyes closed and an oxygen mask on his face. The family acknowledged my presence, as I went over to his bed, sat down, and took his hand and then I introduced myself to him. He looked up at me and asked, “Where is the justice in what is happening to me?” He knew he was dying and most understandably felt abandoned by God. For Gary, God seemed not to be with him during this ordeal for him and his family.

In response to his question, I said the following which came from my heart and soul, “Gary, I would be a fool to try to give you an answer!” Shortly after that I left, but I returned the next day. I remained with Gary, and I held his hand for the next eight hours until he died. The family asked me to officiate at his funeral and when I visited them during Shiva, I asked them why Gary held on to my hand during those last hours of his life. They said to me it was because of the answer I had given to him, which let him know that I, and his family and friends, would never abandon him even though we could not understand the great tragedy that he was experiencing.

Looking back on this experience, I was there in that room that day under the God’s direction. I was meant to be there with him. My answer to his incredibly heart wrenching question meant that in truth, it was not only me and his family who would not abandon him that day, but that it was also God. God could show that Divine love for this young man through our love of him.

The Kotzker Rebbe was asked by his students the now famous question, “Where is God?” His answer to them was equally famous, “God is where we let God in!”

As we recite in the Sh’ma twice a day, God is everywhere and in everything or better yet, everything is within God. It is our task, as children of God, to acknowledge God’s presence during the good times in our lives as well as those times that we experience as bad. Sometimes, it is during those moments that are the greatest challenges and weigh us down so very much that we feel God’s presence the most. These are the times when we can echo those words of Isaiah which are quoted at the end of the prayer Adon Olam, “God is with me; I have no fear.”

I pray that, just as for Moses, regardless of our age, whether young or old, we can hear this voice calling out God’s name and how desperately at times, possibly particularly during our later years, we pray that God can hear us and know our name as well.

About Rabbi Dr. Steven Moss 19 Articles
Rabbi Dr. Steven A Moss is Rabbi Emeritus of B’nai Israel Reform Temple in Oakdale, NY, a synagogue he has served since 1972. He recently retired to Boynton Beach, FL. He has also authored, God Is With Me; I Have No Fear, and A Poetical Journey Through Sefirat HaOmer.

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