Arik Ascherman

May Yud Heh Vav Heh Free Us From Zero-Sum Materialism

Shavua Tov.

There are several challenges with the opening of Va’Era, the Torah portion read this past week:

“God spoke to Moshe, and God said to him, “I am Yod Heh Vav Heh I appeared to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov as El Shaddai, but by My name Yud Heh Vav Heh I was not known to them. (Exodus 6:2-3)

Firstly, we don’t know how to pronounce Yud Heh Vav Heh.   When reading the Torah, we say Adonai.”  Some Christians say “Yahweh.”  Rabbi Arthur Waskow says that it is the sound of breathing…

Secondly, God is frequently referred to as Yod Heh Vav Heh in the stories of God’s relationship with our patriarchs and matriarchs in the book of Genesis. What does it mean to say that they did not know the name Yud Heh Vav Heh?  Ibn Ezra writes, “There is no doubt that the patriarchs knew the name Yud Heh Vav Heh as a proper name. However, they did not know it as an adjective.” This represents the position of many classical commentators.

If this is the case, what does Yud Heh Vav Heh the adjective mean?  Many commentators see this as an expression of God’s faithfulness because this introduction is followed by the five promises that become the four cups of wine in the Passover seder plus Elijah’s cup. The fifth promise that God will bring us into the Land is left for Elijah out of the belief that Elijah will answer unanswered questions. Our sages didn’t know what to do with the fifth promise that God will bring us into the Land because it didn’t seem to have been fully fulfilled.  Some say that we should drink five cups today. Some scholars would argue that our sages wanted only four cups because the seder was modelled after the Greek symposium.

I have commented in the past that more often than we contrast between “El Shaddai” and Yud Heh Vav Heh, as God does here, we look at the contrasting or complementary aspects of “Elohim: as the God of strict justice, and Yud Heh Vav Heh as the God of mercy.  I have always found this challenging because the merciful Yud Heh Vav Heh will now bring terrible plagues upon the Egyptians. We have a zero sum game in which Yud Heh Vav Heh’s mercy towards the Israelites is based on strict and punitive justice towards the Egyptians.

Too often in our world today we believe that if we are realistic, we must accept and act according to zero sum logic.  To do otherwise would be a dangerous form of wishful thinking that ignores immutable realities about how the world works. I would nevertheless argue that we can and must aspire to a world where justice and mercy complement, rather than contradict each other.  We must work for a world in which all will be able to sing at the sea and feel redeemed. Our redemption will not be at somebody else’s expense, but a positive reworking of Martin Luther King Jr’s words “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  We will also realize that, “Justice anywhere contributes to justice and mercy everywhere.”

Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch’s commentary on our verses also focusses on Yud Heh Vav Heh and Elokim:

‘I am Yud Heh Vav Heh” With these two words God gives a complete answer to everything that has happened so far, in secret. ..

‘Elokim” is the hidden God, who acts in the revealed world ‘

And it was God who led everything that had happened so far, in secret. The despair, humiliation, sorrow and distress stemmed from natural situations that G-d allowed to develop; They were the natural result of Egypt’s corruption and strength, and of Israel’s weakness and helplessness. But now, “I am the Yud Heh Vav Heh“: representing something new; Who carries out God’s Will independently of the existing situations, and even in complete contradiction to them.

From this point on, a new world will arise among humankind, a world that will not depend on all the situations that have so far determined the phenomena in the chronicles of the world.”

Hirsch goes on to say that God could have already made life much easier for the patriarchs, but chose the path God led them on to teach them a lesson. They must hit rock bottom in order to appreciate the spiritual and moral power that the world needs, to be freed from a materialist view of the world, and bring to humanity a morality not subject to materialist reality. Karl Marx adapted a materialist theory of history. Max Weber accepted this materialist view, but added that ideas are the switchman that can direct the train moving along the materialist tracks of history. However, God as Yud Heh Vav Heh is not bound by the natural and psychological and economic laws that God created.

Rabbi Michael Lerner speak of the God of the exodus as the God of endless possibilities.  Hirsch says that given Egypts power and our weakness, there is no chance that we could be freed  if the world only can operate according to the laws of material reality. But, there is a Higher Power.

So, my prayer is that Yud Heh Vav Heh Who freed us from Egypt despite all the material reasons that it should have been impossible to do so according to the logic of the physical world, now help us to free ourselves from the material logic of zero sum games.  We need Yud Heh Vav Heh’s power to defy the dark philosophers and those who tell us, “Its us or them.” Quaint ideas of societal responsibility for the poorest and weakest among us will drag us all down. We must leave them behind.  There is no possibility of sharing the Land with another people.  The weakness we show by entertaining such ideas will be our doom.

And, what is OUR role as Yud Heh Vav Heh’s partners freed from Egypt in bringing about the win-win day in which we will all shout as MLK envisioned,  “Free at last, free at last” in a world of justice and well being for all freed from the tyranny of zero sum materialism? Surely, along with and connected to our task to perceive God in our world and inside us and in every human being, this is our great task.

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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