This week’s parashah abounds in venerable theological problems, beginning with its name and opening verses. How could it be that God “appeared” to the ancestors but that some aspect of God—or some truth articulated in God’s name—was not “made known” to them and will be revealed only now, to Moses? The answer that seems most persuasive to me bears a lesson that, like so many others in the Torah, is not so much theological as ethical; it teaches far less about the nature of God than it does about human responsibility. This God, we learn in this parashah, cares greatly about justice in the world and will—at least on this occasion—enter into history to bring it about. God will do battle on the world’s greatest stage with the world’s most powerful ruler—all this to let the whole world know that God is concerned with human beings and human history. The Torah commands us to be no less concerned. We cannot count on divine intervention to improve things. The world will be redeemed only if we act to help make it so.
This question facing us, then, is what we shall do to further God’s pursuit of justice? How are we to know what action to take in response to the Torah’s demand? Prophecy is a scary business. In our day, too many men and women urge murder and much else in God’s name. We dare not follow them. The rabbis declared two thousand years ago that the age of prophecy has passed. It is up to us to interpret and apply the divine commands revealed in scripture as best we can, using all the faculties at our command—reason and experience first of all. “We pay no heed to any heavenly voices.” What voices then shall we heed? How shall we know what to do? Where shall we find the wisdom to do it well? Heschel put the problem this way: “Infinite responsibility without infinite wisdom and infinite power; is our ultimate embarrassment” (God in Search of Man, 285).
One thing is clear, from this parashah and those that follow: we must take action in pursuit of righteousness and cannot use human frailty as a paralyzing excuse for doing nothing. The text works hard to make sure that we identify with its protagonists, never more so than in the story of Moses who, after trying hard to escape the task, leads the Israelites’ struggle to be free of the Pharaoh’s genocidal tyranny. We cheer him on when he slays that Egyptian slave-driver—but then pause to worry, if we are like the sages, that people less attuned than Moses to God’s wishes will take matters into their own hands in a way that promotes injustice rather than fighting it. The Torah shows us case after case of less than perfect Israelites who care more for their own well-being than for the world’s well-being. Even Moses acts rashly on occasion and issues commands that may be at variance with God’s wishes. How then are we latter-day children of Israel meant to puzzle out the rights and wrongs, avoid self-deception and self-righteousness, and still act resolutely to apply prophetic principles in unprecedented situations?
Four guidelines, I think, are provided in Parashat Va-era and in the portions that follow. Note that they are only guidelines, not specifics. History is fluid, and this God, who does new things in the world, apparently needs us to do new things as well, lest God’s teachings grow irrelevant in new conditions. The principles of action seem clear enough however, even if their application will always be subject to argument and doubt.
1. The world must be perfected in righteousness. God demands this. History matters. Human life matters. We must never doubt this, though it is beyond logical proof. The standard for perfection is the nature of YHWH, the God we are to serve—and specifically the attributes of justice and compassion. The world will be judged by its achievement of these virtues. All of us will. In pursuit of justice and compassion, we, too, must heed the groans of the oppressed, liberate them from bondage, and conduct them to freedom.
2. We are only human. We do not always will the good, cannot always identify it correctly, and certainly do not always do it. The Torah is therefore, by and large, a reformist rather than a revolutionary book. It knows that human nature remains the same mixture of good and less than good even in the aftermath of great historical changes and therefore provided laws to guide and constrain our conduct at every point. The changes that we institute will fall short of the good they intend. There are times when great change must be accomplished swiftly because evil is clear and must be stopped. Genocide is the prime example. Most of the time the Torah seems to prefer gradual change. Either way, it urges us to act with our eyes open to the consequences including those we have not intend. For these, too, we are responsible.
3. The Torah and the prophets guide us with ends but not means, norms and not policy, but the ends and norms are generally clear. The poor must be fed. The homeless must be housed. Murder must be stopped. The planet and its species (a newly relevant imperative) must be protected. But it is up to us to figure out how best to do these things, weighing one injustice against another and justice against compassion, and working to ensure that injustice gives way to righteousness and not just a different injustice. This is the double “embarrassment” of which Heschel spoke. Our world is such a mess and we do not know how to fix it. We are tempted sometimes to do nothing or wait for God to do the job for us. But this the rabbis forbade—and so much that needs doing is entirely clear. The prophets repeated the agenda over and over: Feed the poor, house the homeless, stop murder and genocide, free slaves, and guard the Earth.
4. Supreme principle and guiding norm: Life is sacred. Our God, we learn in Parashat Va-era, fulfills promises. Why? Because God made them. This ethical piece of God’s nature could only become known to history, by means of Israel, when the most dramatic promise ever made to our ancestors was fulfilled, in the most dramatic way that human experience of history could imagine. God makes nature itself bend to history in the story told in this week’s parashah—a clear imperative to us that we make history bow to the fundamental principle that the creator wishes us to follow: safeguard the creatures who bear God’s image. God fulfills promises, the Torah teaches, and we are obliged to fulfill the promise for good stored up in us—this despite all the obstacles to knowing and doing the good with which we are burdened. The text is aware of the human condition yet commands us in God’s name nonetheless.
I find great comfort in this awareness and great discomfort—the latter because we can never do enough, we are never “off the hook,” the former because the Torah is clearly meant for us, and so we know what we must do. And know, too, that a life spent doing it is infinitely worthwhile.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.