I Appeared: Parshat Va'era

Parshat Va’era has a lot to tell us about seeing, been seen, appearing, and showing up. In the title sentence, God says to Moshe: “Va’era el Avraham, el Yitzhak, el Ya’akov b’El Shaddai;” "I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, & Jacob, as El Shaddai." I.e., this is me, the same Source of All Life who appeared to your ancestors. To them I appeared as El Shaddai.  God continues: My name is YHVH (a name we can’t pronounce). This is the first time we encounter this name for God in the text.

So much to unpack here, starting with the meaning of God’s previous name, El Shaddai, which can translate to "God of breasts." The move away from this title in this parsha could indicate a theological move away from a more feminine God. Or it could indicate a move away from God-as-parent towards God-as-unknowable-source-of-mystery.

That would be a fine discussion to have.

But today I'm going to focus on something else: The title word of this parsha, va’era, the root of which - resh, aleph – means “to see.” In the first person past tense, it means: “I was seen,” or “I appeared.”

I appeared to your ancestors. Did God actually “appear” to the ancestors? God TALKS to the ancestors a lot – maybe God shows up in the form of the three travelers that happen by Abraham’s tent; maybe God shows up as the ram in the thicket, maybe that’s God in the form of an angel, wrestling with Jacob all night by the bank of the river. Is that what God means by “I appeared” to your ancestors?

The word “appear” is one of those funny words that can mean a thing and its opposite: On the one hand, to appear is to actually show up, in the flesh, as if out of the blue. The concreteness of “appearing” becomes even more obvious when things DISappear. On the other hand, the word “appear” can also mean that we’re not sure that what we’re seeing is actually there, as in, “He appears to be telling the truth” --  meaning, nothing I can see indicates that he’s lying, but I maintain some doubt about what I can’t see.

Va’era el Avraham.” I appeared to Avraham. Maybe what God means here is, “I showed up for Avraham, Yitzhak, and Ya’akov,” which according to the Torah, God did, by intervening numerous times in human affairs. But the other, more doubting layer of “appear” becomes apparent in the second half of this whole sentence: “I appeared to Avraham, Yitzhak, and Ya’akov as El Shaddai – u’shmi YHVH lo nodati lahem -- and my name, YHVH, I did not make known to them.” So God appeared to the ancestors as one thing (El Shaddai), but what they thought they were seeing was not the full story, as God is now revealing to Moshe. There is an implication here that El Shaddai was the form in which Moshe’s ancestors could comprehend God, so God appeared to them that way. Now that Moshe, or the people, are in a different phase of consciousness, God can reveal something more, or something different, about Godself.

It brings to mind the statement of Mahatma Ghandi, that “There are people in the world so hungry that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” We see God in what we need most. That may not be all there is to God, but the God we are seeing is not a mirage or a deception; it is the part of God that is most relevant to us in a moment.

Of course, now that God has told Moshe that there’s more to God than God let on to the ancestors, we the readers feel in the know. NOW we know who the real God is: It’s YHVH. Except that, well, God could just be revealing to Moshe (and us) no more than WE can currently understand. So in this parsha we first encounter the concept that God might be a force that includes both what we see and something beyond what we can fathom.

The command “to see,” “Re’eh,” shows up several lines later, when God says to Moshe, “Re’eh, nataticha elohim l’Pharoh, v’Aharon achicha yihiyeh Neviecha.” “See, I have let you be God to Pharaoh, and Aaron your brother will be your prophet.”

I’ve been puzzling over this sentence, which stands out so glaringly in such an otherwise emphatically monotheistic text. God is saying, “I will let you be / I have made you  God to Pharaoh.” God is appointing Moshe to be Pharaoh’s God, and Aaron Moshe’s prophet. Isn’t that avodah zara (serving other gods than YHVH)?

Many have interpreted this passage in a way that reconciles it with its apparent break from monotheism. Rashi interprets “Elohim” here to mean a judge and a chastiser, i.e., the Elohim of old, not really the God that we now know is YHVH. Indeed, many translations of Torah by Jews and non-Jews alike interpret “Re’eh, natiticha Elohim” to mean that Moshe is really God’s human proxy; he is only – in the doubting sense – “appearing” to be God in Pharaoh’s eyes, so that Aharon can deliver Moshe’s message to Pharaoh.

But I see something much more powerful in this language.

Remember that in the title line of the parsha, God said, “Va’era el Avraham,” meaning “I appeared to Avraham,” but also, “I showed up for Avraham. I intervened. This is how I showed up.” Now God is saying to Moshe, “Re’eh.” “See,” but also, “Appear.” Show up. This is how you will show up: You will show up as the God that Pharaoh needs to see – not the punishing, all-powerful God, but the God that lives in a human being.

Nataticha Elohim l’Pharoh.” I am empowering you to show the God in you to Pharaoh. The God in you is the God Pharaoh needs to see, because Pharaoh needs to understand that all beings are “B’Tselem Elohim,” the likeness of God. Only this will lead him to the conclusion that slaves must be released.

Here, YHVH is offering Pharaoh a last opportunity to come to a just realization, based on the likeness of God he sees in the man standing before him. And perhaps more importantly, God is offering Moshe the opportunity to drop his inhibitions and show up before Pharaoh as the truly marvelous creature of God that he is.

It is a tall order, and a scary one. Because this Pharaoh will not be swayed by Moshe’s Godliness. But Moshe must reveal himself anyway, because it is Moshe’s actions - not Pharaoh’s - that set in motion the liberation of his people.

This is how we must do it: We must reveal ourselves to Pharaoh as the true creatures of God that we are. We may not succeed in softening the heart of a despot whose heart only hardens with each passing day, with each tweet and executive order. But we must consistently demonstrate our belief in Pharaoh’s ability to see God in us. We don’t do this by hiding, or pretending to be what we aren’t, or by demanding any less than what is right. We do it by marching to the palace and repeating our demands: Let my people go.

Let my people IN.

Let my people EAT.

Let my water BE.

Despite any “apparent” futility of doing so, the seeds of our liberation lie first and foremost in our own acts of resistance and of showing up.

May YHVH bless us all with the courage to embody these empowering words: “Nataticha Elohim.” Go forth and be your God-selves.