Parshat Va’era

Torah Reading for Week of January 7-13, 2018

“Languages of Love”
By Dr. Tamar Frankiel, AJRCA Professor of Comparative Religion

The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.

In this parsha begins God’s retribution against Pharaoh, the ten plagues that will eventually bring the hard-hearted emperor to relent.

The events are announced with God’s plan of redemption. The “four languages of redemption” are commemorated, according to our Sages, with the Four Cups at the Pesach seder:

I will bring you out (hotzeiti) from under Egypt’s burdens,

I will deliver you (hitzalti) from their bondage,

I will redeem you (ga’alti)…and

I will take you (lakachti) to Me for a people…

This is a drum-roll passage, a powerful litany of divine promise. But it’s even more dramatic than that brief formulation suggests.  God’s statements are framed with the potent “I am the Lord” (6:2, 6:8), using the Tetragrammaton of God’s name. It is a phrase that resonates throughout the Torah: this name that identifies God as savior, with a distinctive relationship to the Israelites, offering love and commitment, and asking for the same in return.

After the first “I am the Lord,” God reminds Moshe that he appeared to the patriarchs, “but did not make myself known by my name Y-H-V-H.” He also affirms that He made a covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan and now, having “heard the groaning of the Israelites,” remembered the covenant and intends to put those promises into effect.  God specifies in the four expressions of redemption not only physical deliverance but a relationship:  “I will take you to Me for a people and be to you as God, and you shall know that I am Y-H-V-H your God.”  This is essentially a promise of marriage, as many commentators have pointed out, as a husband in traditional language “takes” a wife and she takes his name.

The passage includes a fifth promise, which is often related to the fifth cup, the “Cup of Elijah,” namely:

            I will bring you (heveti) to the land… and give (natati) it to you for a heritage.

            I am the Lord.

Here the final original promise is spelled out to be fulfilled.

On my reading this time, what struck me is not only the drama of a promise fulfilled, but the depth of divine commitment and love. I was reminded of Dr. Gary Chapman’s “five languages of love” that have now become part of popular culture, at least in couples therapy.  While the popularization of a concept has diluted it, perhaps these ideas can help us understand how God is showing love.

The five languages, as usually presented, are words of affirmation, quality time, gifts, service, and physical touch.  The idea in couples work is to discover what language(s) are most important to your partner, and then show your love in the ways that s/he will best understand.

In our passage, the first thing God mentions is directly physical:  I will bring you out from “under the burdens of Egypt.”  He will “touch” the Israelites where they are.

Second, I will “save you from their bondage” points to the entire system of Egyptian slavery, which the Israelites could not overthrow on their own.  This is an act of service, helping them to do what they could not to themselves. (Coincidentally, avodah means service as well as slavery – the Israelites will no longer be in bondage but will return God’s service with their own.)

Third, I will “redeem you.” Redemption in Jewish thought carries the connotation of putting one’s resources into helping another (as in redeeming a captive with ransom money).  God expresses this in adding, “with an outstretched arm and great judgments.” This will take effort, it will be a “stretch,” but that is a message of affirmation of the value of the Jewish people to God.  God has a lot at stake, and this is God’s way of saying “I believe in you.”

Fourth, “I will take you to Me” into a distinctive relationship. As the mystics will say later, “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.” This is a language of love that Chapman puts in terms of “quality time” or “undivided attention.”  The way I think about it is that the relationship is “undivided” in that it is exclusive, and it has to be located in time and space, in action as well as words.  Later, the phrase “I am Y-H-V-H” will accompany the many ways in which God will be with the Jewish people, in the Mishkan and at the holy days that are to be established. It will also be spoken in warning the people away from idols – it will signify undivided loyalty.

And fifth, there is a gift:  “I will give you the land” that I promised to your ancestors, as a heritage you can pass down to your descendants.  This is the seal of God’s plan. To the Israelites in slavery, it may have seemed as unlikely as a suitor’s extravagant promise, but it was certainly a language of love. Connecting to the storied past of the ancestors, it also assured Moshe and the people that nothing had been forgotten.

The languages of love are often overshadowed by the dramas of life, the conflicts and crises, the way we are worn down by our “burdens.”  In this parsha we can see how God exemplified the languages of love operating in promise, commitment, and action.  The battle with Pharaoh may take center stage in the drama, but the ultimate purpose is the relationship between God and the Jewish people, the covenantal marriage that carries us through.