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A Taste of Torah: Weekly Commentary from the JTS Community

Parashat Va-era 5766
Exodus 6:2–9:35
January 28, 2006     28 Tevet 5766

Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, Senior Rabbinic Fellow

Parashat Va'era opens with a stirring pronouncement by God. In Exodus 6:2-6, God declares to Moses, "I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name Adonai. I also established my covenant with them, to give them the Land of Canaan, the land in which they lived as sojourners. I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered my covenant. Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: 'I am the Lord. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage'" No longer will God be a silent spectator in the Egyptian drama. The outcry of the Israelites has sparked divine intervention. And now, the reader of the Torah will be witness to their redemption - a liberation that will forever transform not only the Israelite people but also the entire world. What makes God's opening declaration in this parashah so unique? How are we to understand the scope of these divine words?

What struck me most deeply as I read through this narrative is the remarkable breadth of God's appeal. In conversation with Moses, God reaches back into the Israelite past - recalling the original covenantal promises to our ancestors. God then recognizes the present situation that demands action. And finally, God turns to the future redemption awaiting Israel just around the corner. The structure is powerful. Past, present, and future become fused in a sacred whole as God directs the Torah narrative toward exodus from Egypt. While each separate moment may not have been sufficient to warrant redemption, taken collectively, the Israelite journey compels God to act.

Memory indeed plays the most pivotal role in God's fateful decision. Of the importance of memory, Judith Plaskow writes, "In Judaism, memory is not simply a given but a religious obligation incumbent on both Israel and God. 'Remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt, the house of bondage, how the Lord freed you from it with a mighty hand' (Exodus 13:3). 'I will remember my covenant which is between me and you and every living creature among all flesh' (Genesis 9:15). 'We Jews are a community based on memory,' says Martin Buber. 'The spiritual life of the Jews is part and parcel of their memory'" (Plaskow, Standing Again at Sinai). If memory is so crucial in enabling God to redeem the people, so too is memory critical to human redemption today. Jews must be mindful students of the Jewish past in order to truly engage in tikkun olam. Only with such knowledge can we actively move toward the ultimate redemption: the sacred repair of a broken world.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz

The publication and distribution of "A Taste of Torah" commentary have been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.