Thursday, 03 Jan 2019

Written by Peter Luijendijk

Peter DTFirst of all, a happy [common] new year to all of you, as this is my first Dvar in this new year. Our Parashah of this week is called “Va-eira”, which is often translated as “and I appeared. I can’t help myself by thinking of another Parashah with quite a similar name: “Va-yeira” (and he appeared), which tells us the story of Abraham inviting three strangers to sit with him in the heat of the day in Genesis 18:1. It is in this Parashah that it was promised to Abraham and Sarah that they would receive a child. Later we learn that this child will be Isaac, the father of Jacob – and indeed the father of our people Israel. What is the significance of this similarity to our Parashah today?

Well our Parashah starts with: “God spoke to Moses, and said to him “I am God: and I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”. Here we find a direct resemblance and foregrounding to our story.

It is true that we are out of the book of Genesis, like we are out of the year 2018, and we are in a new year – 2019. But just like with our common year calendar, we can’t say that everything starts anew. Everything is built within a mechanism of cause and action etc. Just like our year is based on the previous, so is this book built on the previous. The rabbis in the Middle Ages said: “there is no earlier or later in Torah”, but that doesn’t take away the causality of events, as these are part and parcel of biological organisms.

My dog, for instance, she seems to understand when she gets her treats. I particularly trained her, that when I leave the house, she goes to her chair and sits quietly. Obviously this doesn’t go without a certain reward. She understands that, when I leave, she gets something particularly good. Either a piece of Dutch cheese, or salted beef. The act I require of her has grown to such an extent that I only have to put my coat on the chair for her to realise – it is chair time, because I get something really really good.

In a sense our opening line functions in a way that foregrounds a similar narrative. God knows that Moses and his people are living in a destitute situation. A situation wherein there is no real hope for anything good. Slavery, poverty, famine and death and exhaustion. There seem to be no way out of this grave, dark, horrible situation. Yet, God foregrounds something that happened quite a few Parashiyyot before. As if to say to us: “do you remember when Abraham and Sarah felt they were in a destitute situation? When they were worried about their offspring and their legacy? Well then also I provided them with the tools to deliver them out of this turmoil”. Unfortunately for their son Ishmael, Abraham and Sarah decided to solve the issue in a somewhat unfriendly manner, but here we are – at the brink of our Exodus from Egypt.

Here God is informing Moses of an earlier miracle. Something that could not have been taken for possible – was made possible. And here, God is promising Moses exactly that. Therefore God is telling Moses to take his children out of slavery into the promised land: “I shall rescue you from their service: I shall redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgement from their service. I shall take you to me for a people and I shall be a God to you; and you shall know that I am Adonai your God, Who takes you out from under the burdens of Egypt. I shall bring you to the land about which I raised my hand to give it to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and I shall give it to you as a heritage – for I am Adonai your God” – Ki ani Adonai Eloheichem. This is what we say towards the end of our shema as a reminder of this promise.

But is this just a reminder of our promise? I believe it is far more than that. I believe it is also a reminder of our previous, and yes, maybe our current problematic or destitute situations. For no life is free of trouble and tribulation.

We all have experienced a moment in our lives, are living these moments in our lives or are currently battling with the outcomes of these moments in our lives – which we don’t want to forget, cannot forget or others don’t let us forget.

I remember that, about a year ago, I was watching, together with my husband, the Golden Globes awards. Firstly I must confess, that I don’t really have an eye or an ear for modern stuff – but my husband does. One of their speakers was Oprah Winfrey who spoke out against misogyny in light of the #Metoo campaign by saying: “their time is up!”. God here is telling Moses that their (Pharaoh’s) time is up! There is no excuse for abuse. There is no excuse for slavery. The word of our Parashah Va’eira, with a similar phonology can also mean, “but I was afraid”. This double entendre feels very poignant towards the end of this Dvar. To speak out against injustice of any kind is hard. It is easier, however, to refer to an injustice from antiquity, like our example in Exodus. But it is quite the opposite to refer to an injustice of the present. We really ought to ask ourselves first – did we do our honest best? Meh Chasdeinu, are our actions just? Mah Tsidkoteinu, And then, if someone comes to us with a grievance – how would we treat such a person? Mah yeshuateinu.[1] Could it be, that we accidentally hurt someone? Everyone has a voice. This voice is visible to us by them showing it to us and by their fear – both senses of “va’eira”.

May this New Year be a sensitive and friendly new year, a friendly new year and a peaceful year.

Peter Luijendijk LBC Rabbinic student

[1] These three words in transcription appear in Forms of prayer on page 36. These three words are translated there as: What is our love? What is our justice? And what is our success?

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.