Parshat Va’era

Torah Reading for Week of January 19-25, 2020
“Making Visible That Which Is Hidden”
By Chaplain Marita Anderson, ’16
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.


“Oh, liberty! Treasure your liberty!” said the man behind the double pane window. Speaking into the visitation phone he whispered, “All I wish is to magically turn into a bird so that I can fly away.” He looked up for a moment and closed his eyes to show me that he would rather imagine the world in his mind than see the reality of his situation. As I sat in silence, I could not help but be touched by the depth of his despair. With the full weight of my being I felt the urge to stand up and walk out of the visitation booth, out of the cinderblock building, beyond the barbed wire fencing, and into the sun-filled parking lot where my car stood ready to take me home.


The man I was visiting, let’s call him Joseph, is an asylum seeker detained at an immigration detention center, a misnomer for what is really a prison. He is a survivor of violence in his home country in Africa where his people are an ethnic minority being persecuted, jailed, and sometimes indiscriminately killed by the ruling majority.


Joseph’s family sold what they owned to get him to South America and then he walked for many months-including a traumatizing trek through the wilderness of the Darien Gap, one of the most dangerous, guerrilla-controlled jungles in the world-to get to our border in order to request asylum. When I asked why he came to the United States, he replied that he always thought of our country as the champion for human rights. He has now been in prison, in the middle of nowhere, for almost a year and will likely be deported, since Georgia’s immigration courts currently boast a 98% denial rate for asylum.


This week’s parsha, Va’era (God appeared), is the biblical narrative of the Israelites’ liberation from slavery. According to the text, God appears to Moses in response to the groaning cries of the enslaved Israelites who are calling for help. God hears their crying, takes notice, and the encounter with human suffering moves God into a conversation with Moses. The sensory channels are also open for Moses as he is able to hear God, even though he is afraid to look. (Ex 3:6)


The ensuing conversations between God and Moses are rich with interpretive potential, as the reader witnesses an ongoing mirror-like relationship between man and the Divine, all in the midst of a national crisis. The flow of communication, the very act of listening and speaking, becomes a pathway toward freedom. God displays miracles through Moses to meet the power of Pharaoh: “see, I place you in the role of God to Pharaoh, with your brother Aaron as your prophet.” (Ex 7:1) Moses and Aaron become the bridge between God, the Israelites, and Pharaoh.


My personal theology encompasses d’vekut and the power of prayer in direct conversation with God. What inspires me most about the narrative of Exodus is that God hears the cries of those suffering. I wonder if the way God hears is through the human bridges: the clergy willing to listen, the volunteers visiting prison booths, the pro-bono attorneys at the borders, the grandmas showing up at bus stops with supplies, the friends pooling together for revolving bond funds, the simple moments of sharing between strangers, the whisperings between people.


In his social justice commentary on Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, points out that tikkun ha-olam, repairing the world, hints at tikkun he-elem, repairing that which is concealed. “Our job is not just to repair the world, but to make what is hidden visible and repair that, too. This includes the suffering of invisible people-those vulnerable people who go through life without the concern of the broader populace.” I encourage you to explore Rabbi Yanklowitz’s on-the-ground projects that help immigration detainees in Arizona.


We have to ask ourselves, have we become like Pharaoh, whose behavior became so entrenched in hard-heartedness that he simply could not make a different choice? Have we, as a nation, become so good at incarcerating people[1] that we use prison as the go-to-solution for dealing with complex humanitarian issues?[2]


I pray that we hear the cries of the most vulnerable in our midst and have the courage to listen. May God appear, va’era, to those who are not visible. And may be the bridges for immigration detainees, who have been hidden away, imprisoned, and silenced.

[1] Sawyer, Wendy, and Peter Wagner. “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2019.” Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2019 | Prison Policy Initiative, The United States has the highest rate of incarceration per capita in the world with almost 2.3 million people in prisons across the U.S., at a rate of 698 per 100,000 residents.
[2] Ibid. In 1994, the number of migrants in detention in the US was about 7,000 people per day. By 2019, that number grew to a daily average of 49,000 people. Notably, the number of people admitted to immigration detention in a year is much higher than the population detained on a particular day. The immigration detention system took in 396,448 people during the course of fiscal year 2018.

“Experiencing God’s Presence”

By Chaplain Muriel Dance, ’11

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.
This D’var is dedicated to the memory of my father, Maurice Eugene Dance, who died four years ago at almost 93. He began as a professor of Economics and ended his career in higher education as a Vice President of Academic Affairs. After my mother died at 40 leaving him to care for seven children, he turned to religion and in his last two decades became a dedicated student of the Bible.


When I was growing up I wondered why he was not president. As an adult reading Devarim, where Moses instructs the Children of Israel on how to live without him, I think of my father. So I was curious what I could find out about how my father viewed Moses. He underlined sentences in his study Bible that focused on Moses’ humility, his reluctance to say yes to God’s call, his fear that the Children of Israel will not believe him and his claim to be slow of speech.


Where does Moses’ reluctance come from? His very birth was a miracle, powered by the midwives’ fear/awe of God that kept them from following Pharaoh’s command to murder the male children. Moses grew up in the Egyptian court as royalty, and he had to escape after he committed murder. Such a precipitous change in station might have contributed to his humility, his sense of inadequacy. He might have feared returning to Egypt where he had committed this crime. And God appeared to him in a burning bush. He experienced times of miracles and times of fear.


What changes Moses and enables him to accept the role the Holy One gave him? God describes the difference between His appearance to the Patriarchs and to Moses: “I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but by My name as YHWH I did not make Myself known to them”(Exodus 6:3). The form of the verb for “known” according to Rashi means that God felt He was not recognized by our forefathers for his faithfulness. Rashi elaborates further that the name YHWH denotes God’s faithfulness. Moses in hearing God’s name was empowered to connect more fully to God’s presence and start the process of liberation.


Why did God withhold his name from the Patriarchs, our forefathers who were never slaves? In another comment on Verse 9, Rashi explains, “The Holy One Blessed Be He said to him, ‘Alas for those who are lost and are not found. I must mourn over the death of the Patriarchs. Many times I revealed Myself to them as God Almighty, and they did not say to Me, ‘What is your name?’” Moses engages the Holy One, questions Him, understands the power of faithfulness. Moses heard the suffering of his brother and sister Hebrews. The Hassidic Master known as “Me’or Einayim” asserts that the true awareness Moses had occurred in the Exile; the Me’or Einayim calls it the “mystery of the Egyptian exile.” Moses has an expansive awareness, a combination of fear and love, a sense of God’s presence, a faith that he must do what the Holy One commands him. The “lost ones” were those who forgot God’s presence.


The Me’or Einayim goes on to explain that the name YHWH represents the Divine in its form as an expansive awareness of God’s presence, (da’at). Moses accepted God’s divinity in the manner God measured it out for him. The Holy One tells Moses, “I have set thee in God’s stead to Pharaoh” (Exodus 7:1). What a responsibility even with a brother along as spokesman. Yet Moses with full humility and awareness of God’s presence enters the process of freeing the Hebrews.


My father too experienced deep exile, and he turned to the Bible as a source to learn about God. In his Bible study, he experienced God’s presence; he felt his pain and hurt was acknowledged. Maybe it was my father’s understanding of how suffering can open the heart to a greater awareness of God that made my father underline Moses’ responses to God. Moses did experience God as El Shaddai, “enough (dai),” representing limitation and constriction, but that did not break his connection with the Holy One. The Me’or Einayim teaches: “Divinity is constricted and contained even in negative forces and limitations, and they had faith that this was true. . . . they accepted God’s divinity in whatever manner God measured it out. . . . We must serve God . . . in good times and in bad.”


Before my father died he said to my sister that he now could see God’s presence in his life. May we be blessed to experience God’s presence amidst pain and constriction.