Parshat Va’era: A G-d by Any Other Name

Photo by Dulcineia Dias on Unsplash

This week’s parsha opens exactly where we left off last week – in the middle of a conversation between G-d and Moshe. Yet, intriguingly, in the first pasuk “Elokim spoke to Moshe and He said to him: I am Hashem (YHVH)” (Shemot, 6:2). Isn’t it a little bit late for introductions? Last week Moshe met G-d for the first time, and they had a long conversation. Why is Moshe only being told now that “I am Hashem”? And, in the following pesukim, G-d tells Moshe “I appeared to Avraham, to Yitzchak and to Yaakov as Kel Shakkai and My name YHVH, I didn’t make known to them” (Shemot, 6:3). A distinction is drawn between different names of G-d: YHVH, Elokim and Kel Shakkai. What is the significance of these names and what is the difference between them?

A name is, practically speaking, a label. It is how we define those around us. Whilst a name contains a person’s essence, we cannot know someone else’s essence. We can, however, experience their existence as it relates to us – and we do that through their name. A person’s parents, friends and colleagues might refer to them using different names; these reflect different aspects of the same person, expressed in different environments. Similarly, with G-d’s names. We cannot know G-d’s essence, but we can experience G-d through His interactions with this world. There are different ways G-d relates to us at different times, and these are expressed by His different names.

To Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, G-d was Kel Shakkai. What does this name represent? The first time it is used is just before Hashem gives Avraham the mitzvah of Brit Milah – “Avraham was 99 years old and Hashem appeared to Avraham and He said to him: I am Kel Shakkai, walk before me and be perfect and I will make a covenant between Me and between you and your children and I will make them very numerous” (Bereishit, 17:1-2). This name of G-d is associated with the promise G-d makes in these pesukim, to give Avraham many children. And it’s associated with Brit Milah. It is the name G-d uses to make promises to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov about their future. This is G-d’s name of covenant, of promises.

However, our parsha contains the beginning of the redemption – the fulfilment of those promises. Rashi explains that the name YHVH represents a G-d who is trustworthy to pay reward to those that follow Him (Rashi, Shemot, 6:2). This is G-d’s name of fulfilling the promises He made. At the end of Parshat Shemot, Pharoe makes working conditions even harder for Bnei Yisrael: geulah glimmers throughout the parsha but is not realised. It is in this parsha that geulah begins. And that necessitates a change in the way G-d relates to the world. No longer as Kel Shakkai who makes promises in theory, instead as YHVH who fulfils those promises in reality. Therefore, this parsha has to begin with such a declaration as “I am YHVH”.

This week is also Shabbat Mevarchim; we turn our attention to the upcoming month of Shevat. The Mishna in Rosh Hashanah tells us that there are four beginnings of the year and records the following disagreement – “the first of Shevat is Rosh Hashanah for the trees, these are the words of Beit Shammai. Beit Hillel says, on the fifteenth of the month” (Rosh Hashanah, 1:1). What is the nature of this debate?

According to the Gemarah, the first of Shevat marks when most of the rain has fallen and the trees have enough water to be able to blossom. However, it is not until the middle of the month that the trees actually do start blossoming (Talmud Yerushalmi, Rosh Hashanah, 1:2). Rosh Chodesh Shevat marks the potential for new life. Tu B’Shvat marks the actual beginning of new life. The month of Shevat symbolises the movement from potential and promise to reality. Both are worthy of celebration, hence the disagreement. But we celebrate Tu B’Shvat, the fifteenth of the month, the day on which the trees start blooming, the day on which the moon has grown to its fullest. It is a day on which we are reminded of how much we can achieve.

Both Parshat Vaera and the month of Shevat teach the same message. This week we move from Kel Shakkai to YHVH, from covenant to fulfilment, from promise to realisation, from guarantees that we will be redeemed to the beginning of redemption. And so it is the perfect week on which to look forward to Shevat, and for us to begin thinking about how we can take all the potential we have and, over the next month and beyond, translate that into reality, to take everything we have been given and to begin to blossom.

About the Author
Born and raised in London, I spent a year in Israel and am currently studying English Literature at university.
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