Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold


“I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name Yud-Hay-Vav-Hay.” (Exodus 6:2)

At the beginning of this week’s portion, we learn something new – God has a name. It is spelled with the four Hebrew letters Yud-Hay-Vav-Hay. We are not allowed to pronounce the name. I am aware that people say Yahweh, and some say Jehovah. But Jewish tradition teaches that we should not pronounce it at all. When Jews pray and come across God’s name, they simply say Adonai, “My Lord.” When Jews are talking and come across God’s name, they simply say HaShem, “The Name.”
When the third of the Ten Commandments teaches not to take God’s name in vain, it is speaking about misusing God’s real name. The commandment is not about cursing. Nor is it a commandment to spell the English word G-d. (I consider this a piety that is not required by Jewish law.) But the commandment refers to misusing or misappropriating God’s name, which gives the user power. Jews, to avoid taking the name in vain, avoid pronouncing the name at all.
There is an exception. When the ancient Temple was standing, during the Yom Kippur rituals, in the Holy of Holies, the High Priest would use God’s real name. In S. Ansky’s play The Dybbuk, there is a wonderful passage. The holiest place in the world is Jerusalem, and in particular, the Temple, and in particular, the Holy of Holies. The holiest language in the world is Hebrew, and the holiest word in particular is the name of God. The holiest day of the year is the Sabbath, and in particular, Yom Kippur which is called the Sabbath of Sabbaths. The holiest people in the world are the priests (Kohanim), and in particular, the High Priest. These four holy-nesses come together at one moment. If the High Priest has an improper thought at that holy moment , the world can be destroyed.
Today we reenact this moment in our Yom Kippur liturgy (the Avodah service during Musaf.) But we no longer pronounce God’s name. In fact, we no longer know how to pronounce it. The tradition, preserved by the priesthood, has been lost. Not only do we not pronounce God’s holy name, but if we do write it down, we do not destroy the writing. That is why we bury Torah scrolls and prayerbooks that are no longer useable. And that is why many synagogues have a Geniza, a storage place for holy scrolls. Solomon Schechter, the scholar who was the first chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, is well-known for discovering the Cairo Geniza.
Although we cannot pronounce God’s name, we can speculate on its meaning. The four Hebrew letters seem to come from the Hebrew root hiya, a word meaning “to be.” God’s very name seems to imply that God is, God exists. One of the great questions that philosophers ask is whether existence is part of God’s very nature. The famous ontological proof of God, first developed by the Christian Saint Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), taught that existence is part of the definition of God. Philosophers are still arguing about this proof of God.
Thinkers may argue whether we can prove the existence of God. But to the Torah and the Rabbis, God’s existence is a given. God exists, and God’s name assumes that existence. Through the book of Genesis, the patriarchs and matriarchs never learn God’s name. God finally reveals the name to the greatest prophet, Moses. Today we know how to spell the name using Hebrew letters. But we do not know how to pronounce it. There is a sense of mystery to God’s name, which adds to the holiness which Jews try to bring to the world.

“I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God.” (Exodus 6:6-7)
Last week I spoke about a new ritual at the Passover seder, pouring a cup of water for Miriam. This week I want to speak about one of the oldest rituals, pouring a cup of wine for Elijah. For our own seder, we have two beautiful matching cups, one for Elijah and one for Miriam. But why do we pour a cup of wine and invite Elijah to visit our seder?
For an answer, we turn to a few verses at the beginning of this week’s portion. The portion shows God’s promise of our redemption from Egypt. The Torah uses four verbs to speak about that redemption, mentioned in the verses quoted above. God will free us, will deliver us, will redeem us, and will take us. Four verbs symbolize the four steps in redemption. We celebrate that fact by drinking four cups of wine at the Passover seder. We need to drink the four cups, not take a sip for each cup.
As a kid, my parents allowed me to drink wine at the seder. It was that heavy, syrupy kosher red wine. For years, at every seder, I began to feel sick after the second cup. I had to go lie down. That is how I discovered that I have an allergic reaction to red wine. Today at my seder I only drink white wine. (Yes, white wine is permitted. Nothing says the wine needs to be the color of blood.)
The number four is significant at the seder. We ask four questions. There are four kinds of children. And of course, we drink the four cups of wine. We drink one for the kiddush at the beginning of the seder, one after Hallel before dinner, one after dinner as we say the Grace after Meals, and one at the end of the Seder, before the words “Next Year in Jerusalem.” By the end of the seder, filled with food and wine, we feel sated and perhaps a bit inebriated.
But there is a question. If we continue reading this week’s portion, a fifth verb for redemption is used. “I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Exodus 6:9). Coming into the land is a fifth step of redemption. Perhaps we should drink a fifth cup of wine. This is one of those unanswered questions the Rabbis loved to ponder, do we drink four or five cups?
Thus began the tradition of pouring the fifth cup but not drinking it, rather leaving it on the table for Elijah. There is a tradition that when Elijah comes, he will answer all unanswered questions of Jewish law. So we wait for him to come. As a kid, my parents told me that if I watch the Cup of Elijah closely, I will see the wine diminish a little. I do not know if I ever saw it, but my parents told me that Elijah has a lot of seders to visit. He drinks a tiny bit of wine at each seder, so he does become too drunk.
This ritual raises a deeper question. Is coming into the land of Israel a final step of our redemption? We say in our prayers that Israel is reishit tz’michat geulateinu, “the beginning of the flowering of our redemption.” It is a beginning. But to my mind, that redemption has not happened yet. Redemption is incomplete. The Messiah has not yet come. We leave the fifth cup for Elijah without drinking it.
There are certainly people in Israel who see the redemption as complete, who wish to set up a Jewish theocracy in the Holy Land run by Orthodox rabbis. These people are not interested in secular Western values such as democracy, personal freedom, or human rights. I am not an Israeli citizen, I do not vote there, and my children do not serve in the army there. I am limited in what I can say about Israeli politics. But many of the trends I see happening in Israel today are quite disturbing.
The cup of Elijah symbolizes that our redemption is incomplete. We still must wait. To quote one of the great minds of the Conservative Movement, Rabbi Robert Gordis, “Leave a little something for God.”

“Then the hand of the Lord will strike your livestock in the fields – the horses, the asses, the camels, the cattle, and the sheep – with a very severe pestilence.” (Exodus 9:3)
Anyone who has attended a Passover Seder is familiar with a key moment – the ten plagues. Solemnly we recite the names of the plagues and remove a drop of wine for each one. If a full cup of wine symbolizes a full cup of joy, we lower our joy to recognize the suffering of the Egyptians. Dam, Tz’fardea. Kinim, Arov, Dever, etc.
What is the fifth plague dever? This week’s portion describes it as a horrible cattle disease that destroyed the livestock of Egypt but spared the livestock of Israel. Old fashioned haggadahs use the term Murrain, an archaic word meaning distemper or other disease leading to piles of dead animals. I can imagine how piles of dead frogs, lice, and other vermin from the previous plagues can create pathogens which killed the cattle. But later the term in the Bible the term dever takes on a far more sinister meaning.
The Prophet Ezekiel speaks about sending four harsh judgements against Jerusalem – the sword, famine, wild beasts, and pestilence (dever, see Ezekiel 14:21). In Christian tradition these became the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. As punishment for our sins, God sends four destructive forces through humanity. The fourth (dever) is caused by deadly pathogens which continuously attack humanity. I like to describe this with the alliterative phrase “pestilence, plagues, and pandemics.” Even in an age of nuclear danger and climate change, the biggest threat to human existence are creatures too small to be seen by the human eye.
From Biblical leprosy to the black death of the Middle Ages, and from the Great Influenza of World War I (which killed more than the war itself) to the current Covid-19 pandemic, humans have been fighting deadly pathogens. Many say the pathogens are winning. And some say such diseases, like the plagues in Egypt, are God’s punishment. Here is what I wrote in my 2020 Rosh Hashana sermon, the first year of the pandemic.
Some say God is sending us a message. And it is a doozy. God is trying to tell us something. We better listen. What is the message of the pandemic?” I have heard the same answer from numerous people. “God is trying to tell us something about our relationship to the earth, and our relationship to nature. Stop!” If we stop going out, stop driving so much, stop working the earth, then nature will reclaim her rightful place.
Let me quote an article that appeared in the Sun-Sentinel. “As people across the globe stay home to stop the spread of the new coronavirus, the air has cleaned up, albeit temporarily. Smog stopped choking New Delhi, one of the most polluted cities in the world, and India’s getting views of sights not visible in decades. People also noticed animals in places and at times they don’t usually. Coyotes have meandered along downtown Chicago’s Michigan Avenue and near San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.” The article goes on to quote one scientist, “It is giving us this quite extraordinary insight into just how much a mess we humans are making of our beautiful planet.” According to this view, the virus is a punishment God sent us to get us to change our ways.
This quote is somewhat benign. There have been harsher quotes of what we humans are doing to the planet. In my book Three Creation Stories, I quote an article that appeared in the Los Angeles Times in 1989. The author claims we humans have become a cancer on the earth. He writes, “We have become a plague upon ourselves and upon the Earth. It is cosmically unlikely that the developed world will choose to end its orgy of fossil-energy consumption, and the Third World its suicidal consumption of landscape. Until such time as Homo sapiens should decide to rejoin nature, some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along.”
Personally, I do not believe that pestilence, plagues, and pandemics are a punishment from God. Nature does not exist to teach us moral lessons. Nature simply exists. Our job as humans is to live within nature and keep ourselves safe. We have tools to help us stay safe – social separation, masks, vaccines, and boosters. We simply must learn to use them.

“Go to Pharaoh in the morning, as he is coming out to the water, and station yourself before him at the edge of the Nile, taking with you the rod that turned into a snake.” (Exodus 7:15)
There is a Midrash about Pharaoh meeting Moses at the edge of the Nile River, before God turned the water to blood. (Exodus Rabbah 9:8) Why would Pharaoh, King of Egypt, be at water’s edge at the crack of dawn. Kings like to sleep late. The Midrash explains that Pharaoh went early in the morning to meet his bodily needs, before other people awoke. He saw himself as a god, and he did not want people to see that he was merely human, with the same needs as every other human.
Pharaoh had a high opinion of himself. This caused him to become a proud, arrogant man, subjecting his people to plague after plague, refusing to let the Israelites go. Pharaoh was the epitome of the Biblical verse “pride comes before the fall.” (Proverbs 16:18) Compare Pharaoh to Moses, the man who confronts and eventually beats Pharaoh. Nonetheless, Moses was known for his humility. If one is in a position of power, it is vital that one develop a strong dose of modesty.
I think about this as I consider the horrible events of this past week. A riotous mob took over the Capitol building, threatened not only senators and congresspeople but the Vice President, desecrated a sacred site, and caused the deaths of several people including a Capitol policeman. The tragedy is that they were encouraged the President of the United States, who could not accept the fact that he had lost the election. People have a right to demonstrate peacefully. But when the demonstration turned into a riot, the President had the obligation to tell his supporters to stand down. The President finally spoke up, too little and too late. And so we witnessed a sad chapter in the history of our republic.
There is a lesson in all this. Too often people in a position of power forget their humanity and allow a foolish pride to overwhelm them. This is true of Pharaohs and presidents. But it is also true of other people in power – doctors, lawyers, judges, businesspeople, athletes, and entertainers. It is even true of religious leaders including rabbis. I have known too many rabbis who lost their ethical compass and behaved in a matter contrary to Jewish values and even secular law. Some have ended up in jail. This is the risk when people allow their position to become more important than their humanity.
The Rabbis were well aware of this danger. That is why Rabbi Yosi taught,” It is not the place who honors the person, but the person who honors the place” (Taanit 21b). Human dignity does not come from holding an office. Rather, a person acting ethically brings dignity to that office. Those in a position of power and authority have even more responsibility to be careful of their words and actions.
When I speak about people in positions of power, I often quote a Talmudic source that teaches an important lesson. (Sukkah 52a) The great sage Abaye saw a young man accompanying a young woman on a walk. Worried that they would do something unseemly, Abaye decided to follow them. After a while, the young man told the young woman that her company was very pleasant, and now they would go their separate ways. Abaye leaned against a doorpost very upset. He thought, had I been that man I would have been unable to restrain myself. A certain elder heard him and said, The greater the man, the greater the evil inclination.” Perhaps the meaning of the story is that, the greater the person, the greater the need to control their evil inclination. It takes a powerful appetite to acquire a position of power. The Rabbis identified this drive for power with the yetzer hara – the evil inclination. This was an idea further developed by Sigmund Freud, who identified the desire for power with the uncontrolled id. The greater the power, the greater the obligation. Those in positions of power must control that self-pride, and like Moses, learn the importance of humility.


“I will harden Pharaoh’s heart and multiply my signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt.”  (Exodus 7:3)

I recently saw the movie Uncut Gems starring Adam Sandler.  It was very well done, but also very disturbing to watch.  Adam Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a role far from his usual comedy or his Hanukkah Song.  He is a Jewish jeweler in New York City with a severe addiction to gambling.  The movie races forward at a hectic pace leaving viewers breathless, as Ratner’s life seems to spin out of control.  Often, I wanted to shout at the screen at Ratner, “Don’t do it.”

Only in one scene does the action slow down a bit.  Sandler and his family including his wife played by Idina Menzel (two fine Jewish actors) attend a Passover seder.  The director wants to focus on the most recognizable part of the seder.  The movie portrays the recital of the Ten Plagues.  The actors remove wine with their fingers from their cups as they recite in Hebrew – dam (blood), tzfardea (frogs), kinim (lice), etc.  It is almost as if the scriptwriter was trying to compare the demons that attacked ancient Egypt with the demons who overwhelmed Ratner’s character.  Even people unfamiliar with a Passover seder may recognize the ritual of the Ten Plagues.  By the way, like many critics, I was disappointed that Sandler was not nominated for a Best Actor Oscar.

Why do we remove a finger drop of wine from our cup for each of the Ten Plagues?  The classical answer is that a full cup of wine is a full cup of joy.  We diminish our joy a little bit for each of the plagues suffered by the Egyptians.  The Egyptians were our enemies who enslaved us, but they were also creatures made in the image of God.  We do not rejoice at the suffering of our enemies.  That is the reason why the Rabbis attempted to downplay military victories as a time of celebration.  (For example, they totally reinterpreted the meaning of Hanukkah from a victory by the Maccabees to a miracle by God.)

If the Egyptians were forced to suffer, why did God bring these terrible plagues to begin with?  The Biblical answer is that God wanted to multiply His signs and wonders in the land of Egypt.  The Passover Story is a confrontation between a human king, Pharaoh, who saw himself as a god, and the real King of the Universe.  Pharaoh was a man out of control.  He was stubborn, hardening his heart over and over and refusing to allow the Israelites to go.  In the end, there had to be no question who won this great battle of wills.  Pharaoh had to be defeated.  And so the Ten Plagues came onto Egypt.

In this week’s portion we read about the first seven plagues.  In next week’s portion we will read about the last three, including the horrible slaying of the first born.  After the Angel of Death passed through Egypt slaying the oldest of each household, male and female, Pharaoh had no choice.  Utterly defeated, he finally relented and allowed the Israelites to go.  (Of course, he would change his mind once more, pursuing the Israelites to the Sea.)  At last pride and stubbornness were defeated.

Like Pharaoh, Adam Sandler’s Ratner cannot stop.  Even as his life spins out of control, he cannot walk away from his addiction to make the one big payoff that will set him up for life.  Sandler’s character is an example of addiction at its worst.  Whether drinking or drugs, gambling or pride, overeating or sex, there are people who simply cannot stop.  Fortunately. there are programs, from twelve step meetings to rehab centers, to help people change their ways.  But it is a huge commitment to take advantage of such programs.  No twelve step meetings existed in ancient Egypt for Pharaoh to deal with his uncontrolled pride.

I will not spoil the movie Uncut Gems by giving away what happens to Ratner.  His life is a breathless roller-coaster ride and I invite you to see it.  Both a Biblical story and a modern Hollywood movie give wonderful portrayals of a life spinning out of control.

“I will put a division between my people and your people; tomorrow shall this sign be.” (Exodus 8:19)
Most of you know that I am a lover of Broadway musicals. When Hamilton opened and won every award in the business, I knew I would see it – eventually. Last week Evelyn and I finally saw it here in Ft. Lauderdale. The show was wonderful, packed with powerful music, dancing, and a stage filled with energy. But for those lucky enough to get tickets, I strongly recommend that you listen to the music and learn the story in advance.
I want to share one aspect of the musical that truly impressed me. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who composed and wrote the show, threw in hints of earlier rap music and musicals. Let me share one of those hints. In the song “My Shot,” Aaron Burr sings “I’m with you, but the situation is fraught, you’ve got to be carefully taught, if you talk, you’re gonna get shot.” You’ve got to be carefully taught is a clear reference to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s great show South Pacific, which opened in the 50’s. It is a musical about World War II and the serious racism among Americans at that time. The lyrics referred to in that show are, “you’ve got to be taught to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made, and people whose skin is a different shade, you’ve got to be carefully taught.” I believe Miranda, when conceiving his show, believed that we have come a long way since those days.
Part of what Hamilton does is bring a mixed-race cast to play our founding fathers and mothers. In the production we saw (the 2nd touring production), Hamilton was Hispanic, Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson were black, George Washington was Asian, King George was white, Angelica Schuyler was black, and her sister Eliza who married Hamilton was Hawaiian. (In the original cast on Broadway Eliza was Filipino.) Within five minutes the race and nationalities of the actors did not matter. The show displayed an image of America which was truly color-blind.
Unfortunately, our nation is closer to South Pacific than Hamilton. Too many people still see the world in terms of black and white, native-born and immigrant, Anglo and Hispanic, male and female, straight and gay. We put people in boxes based on skin color and ethnicity. It is common on the extreme right. We saw that in the horrendous events last year in Charlottesville, VA, where extremists marched against blacks and Jews. They threatened a synagogue and murdered a young woman who was a counter demonstrator.
This racial bias is also seen on the left. They often see the world divided between people of privilege and their victims. Whites have privilege, blacks are victims. Males have privilege, females are victims. Straights have privilege, gays are victims. I am a straight white male, so I am a person of triple privilege. Black gay females are victims three times over (this is often called intersectionality.) We have moved far from Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of judging people not by the color of their skin but the contents of their character.
I loved Hamilton because it portrayed a color-blind society. In this week’s portion we read about the Ten Plagues which spared the Israelites but afflicted the Egyptians. In Jewish tradition we ritually recognize the suffering of the Egyptians. A full cup of wine is a full cup of joy. At the Passover Seder, we remove a little wine from our cup for each of the Ten Plagues which afflicted Egypt. We lessen our joy because another people, a people who were our enemies, suffered. We recognize the humanity of every human being.
I do not know the real Alexander Hamilton’s views about race, although he grew up on the Caribbean Island of Nevis. I imagine it was a far more racially mixed culture than New York City at that time. I do know that Miranda’s hit musical about Hamilton’s life sends a clear message we all need to hear, race does not matter. May we all hear that message.

“There came a grievous swarm into the house of Pharaoh, and into his servants’ houses, and into all the land of Egypt; the land was devastated because of the swarm.” (Exodus 8:20)
In this week’s portion we begin to read about the ten plagues. At the Passover seder Jews throughout the world remove wine from their cups for each of these ten plagues which devastated Egypt. Removing the wine for each plague reminds us of the suffering of the Egyptians. A full cup of wine is a full cup of joy. We lower our joy a bit to remember the suffering of the Egyptians, who were also God’s children.
It is a favorite memory of the seder, placing one’s finger in the cup of wine and removing a little as we call out the names – dam – blood, tzefardea – frogs, kinim – lice, arov – wait, what is arov? It comes from a Hebrew root meaning mixture. But a mixture of what? Some translations say flies, others say wild beasts. Rashi says “all kinds of dangerous animals, snakes, and scorpions in a great mixture.” We do not know what the plague was, but it was a great mixture of something.
The Hebrew word arav means mixture. It has multiple meanings which are used in multiple contexts in Jewish tradition. One example is one a group of people live in an apartment building with a shared courtyard. Technically one may not carry on the Sabbath from one apartment to another. But if they each brought some food and mixed it together, the entire apartment complex becomes one residence allowing everyone to carry. The mixture is called an eruv, from the same root. Today we expand on that law, creating a barrier around an entire community to allow people to carry in a public place. Orthodox Jews will look for communities with an eruv, particularly in order to allow women to push a baby carriage in public.
The Hebrew word eravon comes from the same root. It means a surety. I become mixed up in someone else’s life by providing a surety, a kind of collateral for them. Judah uses this word when he convinces his father to send Benjamin with him down to Egypt (Genesis 43:9). He will act as a surety, guaranteeing his brother’s safe return. Out of this we get one of the most famous lines in Judaism, kol yisrael eravim ze b’ze – “all Israel are responsible for one another” (Talmud Shevuot 39a). We all must act as sureties for one another. It was this line which motivated Israel in 1976 to send a group of soldiers to Entebbe and rescue Jewish hostages on a highjacked plane. Prime Minister’s Netanyahu’s brother Yonatan was killed in that operation.
If the word erev means mixture, what does the Torah mean in the first chapter of Genesis when it says v’hi erev v’hi boker, “there was evening and there was morning.” Six times the phrase is repeated before each of the six days of creation. But if the word really means mixture, perhaps a better translation is there was confusion or chaos. The world looks confused and chaotic in the evening. Only in the morning is there distinction, as the chaos turns to order. And the Hebrew world boker comes from a root meaning “distinction.” I believe a better translation of the first chapter of Genesis comes from the word meaning mixture. Everything was mixed up. Then it was no longer mixed up. There was chaos and there was order, one day.
I believe the first chapter of Genesis is really about a world moving from chaos to order. It is not about six days at all, but six steps in the movement from chaos to order. This is precisely how scientists see the history of the world, as a movement from the chaos after the Big Bang to the order of life on this earth. People often ask me whether Genesis is true or science is true. I love saying that they both are true, they are the story of moving from chaos to order.
We started with a single word meaning mixture. We have gone from the fourth plague to pushing a baby stroller on Shabbat, from our responsibilities for one another to the story of creation at the beginning of Genesis. One word has taught many lessons. That is the power of the Hebrew language.

“I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob by the name God Almighty, but by my name Yud-Hay-Vav-Hey I was not known to them.” (Exodus 6:3)
Shakespeare famously said in Romeo and Juliet, “What in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” As much as I admire the Bard, on this one I believe that Shakespeare is wrong. Names matter. Of the countless books I have in my office, the one I use most often is Alfred J. Kolatch’s book of Hebrew names. I often settle serious family feuds over the name of babies. I search down the proper Hebrew names for weddings and bar/ bat mitzvah students. And I am amazed how often I do a funeral where no one knows the Hebrew name of the deceased. I urge people to let family members know your Hebrew name.
If names are important, then God’s name must be truly important. In fact, it is so important that we are not allowed to pronounce it. We spell it with four Hebrew letters Yud-Hay-Vav-Hey, but no one today knows how to pronounce it. Only the High Priest was allowed to say it, and then only in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur. The Temple is gone, there is no Holy of Holies, and we no longer have a High Priest. Today no one says God’s name. When we come across it in prayer or when we read Torah, we substitute the word Adonai – “My Lord.” When we speak we simply say HaShem – “The Name.” Of course, when Jehovah’s Witnesses come to the door, they name their religion after their understanding of the pronunciation of the name. Feel free to tell them that they are breaking Jewish law by saying the word “Jehovah.”
What about writing God’s name? It is written in a Torah scroll, tefillin, and mezuzah (the parchment inside, not the mezuzah case.) This items become holy and cannot be discarded. When they are no longer usable, we must bury them. Similarly with holy books; if they contain God’s name we must bury them. In the prayerbook we generally abbreviate God’s name, writing yud – yud, but even these are sufficiently holy to require burial. We do not need to bury a book that contains the English word “God” – this is not God’s name. The third of the Ten Commandments teaches that we should not take God’s name in vain. This does not mean that we should not curse, nor are we required to write G-d for God. It literally means that we cannot misuse God’s holy name
What does God’s name mean? It consists of four unpronounceable letters that come from a Hebrew root meaning “to be.” We can simply call God the One Who is. But perhaps better, it suggests a future tense, the one Who will be. At the burning bush Moses asks God what he shall call Him. God simply says, “I will be Who I will be” (Exodus 3:14). It is God Who is in the process of becoming. I have often written about a process view of God, a God who is constantly in process, affected by what happens in the world. The founder of process philosophy, Alfred North Whitehead, taught that God affects the world while the world affects God.
In this week’s portion we are first introduced to God’s holy name. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob knew God as El Shadei, “God Almighty.” But now Moses has learned God’s real name, the name that somehow reflects the essence of God. To know the name of God is to know the power of God. That is why there was a concern in Jewish tradition not to misuse the name of God.
So why did God not share His holy name with the founders of our religion? Why did God share it with Moses but not Abraham? Why do we have a name so holy that we do not even know how to pronounce it? Perhaps the old legend of the golem contains a hint. Rabbi Judah Lowe made a golem of the dust of the earth using God’s name to animate the creature so he would protect the people of Prague. But he soon lost control of his creation, and had to remove God’s name and turn it back to mere dust. Perhaps God’s name has a power that we humans can both use and misuse. This can serve as a warning not only in medieval Prague but in our own day, how easy it is to both use and misuse the power of God.

“So Moses held out his rod toward the sky, and the Lord sent thunder and hail, and fire streamed down to the ground, as the Lord rained hail upon the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 9:23)
Yesterday I was sitting in my office thinking about what to write on the portion, while listening to Beethoven. In particular, I was enjoying his Symphony #6, the Pastoral Symphony. Then the fourth movement came on, which recreates a thunderstorm with music. I knew that I had to write about the weather.
I am amazed how Beethoven used a symphony orchestra to create a thunderstorm. A great artist can make weather. But I should not be surprised. The Bible itself creates a thunderstorm with words. We chant Psalm 29 every Friday night and Saturday morning. “The voice of the Lord is upon the waters, The God of glory thunders, even the Lord is on many waters.” (Psalms 29:3) Harold Kushner, in his newest book, Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned About Life, describes one of his favorite paintings. Winslow Homer’s 1885 painting The Fog Warning shows a fisherman struggling in a little boat to get back to the ship as the fog gathers around him. The painter powerfully portrays the oncoming fog about to engulf the little boat.
In each of these examples an artist is able to create the weather. But of course God is the ultimate artist. God is the creative mind behind the weather. This is clear from this week’s Torah portion, which portrays the first seven of the ten plagues which came upon Egypt. The seventh plague, known as barad, was a terrible hail storm that destroyed both livestock and crops. The hail burned with fire and brought with it terrible thunder. This plague almost succeeded in getting Pharaoh to change his mind and let the people go.
Is there a mind behind the weather? We humans often see the weather that way. We will ask why the tornado chose to destroy this home and skip over that home, as if the tornado made a decision. We give hurricanes names, personifying them. It used to be only female names, but in this more egalitarian age we switch off with male names. In 1992 a male hurricane named Andrew devastated south Florida. A group of Hassidic Jews on Miami Beach claimed that their prayers convinced Andrew to turn south to less populated areas. (I am sure the people who live south of Miami did not appreciate these Hassidic prayers.)
Our synagogue was badly damaged by a female hurricane Wilma in 2005. For weeks our building was unusable, and the second floor was never available to us again. We eventually had to abandon that building and build a new structure. Was Wilma out to get us? For that matter, was Katrina in 2005 out to get New Orleans, or did Superstorm Sandy in 2012 decide to devastate New York and New Jersey. Do hurricanes, tornadoes, or tsunamis have a mind?
When Kushner describes the Homer’s painting which hangs in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, he goes on to describe how he sees God in that painting. But God is not in the fog moving in to envelop the lonely fisherman. Rather God is in the fisherman himself, struggling against the forces of nature to return with his catch to the ship. God is not in the weather but in us.
Kushner goes on to quote one of my favorite Biblical passages. Elijah, fleeing from the wicked King Ahab and his cruel wife Jezebel, goes back to Mt. Sinai where the Israelites received the Torah. Remember that at the giving of the Torah the mountain was surrounded by thunder and lightning. But this time the events are very different. “Behold the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke rocks into pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire a still, small voice.” (I Kings 19:11-12) God is not in the wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire. God is in the still small voice which Elijah hears within himself.
Nature goes according to its own laws. Nature is amoral. Nature does not choose to help us nor to harm us. Hurricanes do not have a will which makes them choose which way to go. So where was God when the horrible storm struck? God was within each of us, as we sought to clean up the mess and help our neighbors. God speaks to us not in hail nor thunderstorms, but in a still small voice. If only we would listen.

“Yet Pharaoh’s heart stiffened and he did not heed them, as the Lord had said.” (Exodus 7:13)
There is a line I like from the hit Broadway musical Wicked. “Are people born wicked, or do they have wickedness thrust upon them?” The question rings true in a word where evil seems to reign. Last week I wrote about the great strength of Moses – his utter intolerance for evil. This week Moses begins his great confrontation with the man who epitomizes evil, Pharaoh King of Egypt. This is the Pharaoh who over and over will harden his heart, no matter how many plagues strike Egypt. Stubbornness and pride will prevent him from freeing the slaves and letting the Israelites go.
Unfortunately, we Jews have had more experience than perhaps any other people at confronting evil. It began with Pharaoh and will continue in two weeks with Amalek, a nation who in Jewish tradition came to symbolize pure evil. Then through a long history from Haman to Hitler, from Crusades to pogroms, the evil has not ceased. We say in our Passover seder, “In every generation they rise up to try to destroy it.” The world once again saw the face of pure evil last week in Paris, first at a satirical magazine publisher, then at a kosher market as Jews shopped for Shabbat. Seventeen innocent people were murdered. Today the face of evil is Islamic extremism, the jihadists who would kill all who do not share their bloody vision of a world ruled by Sharia.
So was Pharaoh born evil? Was Hitler born evil? Were the jihadists born evil? If not, where did the evil come from? To answer this question, we must explore a fundamental issue regarding the nature of human beings.
Humans are different from animals. Animals function by nature, according to their biological drives. Humans also have biological drives. But biology is just a small part of what makes us human. Humans also function within a culture. We grow up learning certain fundamental values and ways of seeing the world. We are a product of nature and of nurture. And cultures can teach us to “love the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Or cultures can teach us to hate the stranger because the stranger does not believe as we do.
Jewish tradition teaches that human beings are by nature neither good nor bad. Humans have a good inclination and an evil inclination. Both exist as pure potential in every human being who is born. Humans can go either way. I have heard this Jewish idea compared to a similar Native American tradition. Every human being has two wolves on their shoulder, a good wolf and an evil wolf. Both fight over which way that human being will behave. So which wolf will win the fight? Whichever one we feed more. We can feed the evil inclination. Or we can feed the good inclination.
Too many cultures feed our evil inclination. They teach us to hate the other. At the extreme, whether Nazi Germany or modern jihadists, they teach that it is all right to kill the other. But far less extreme, on this weekend that we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., we must admit that many in American culture grew up hating others. Cultures can be a source of great evil in the world. Or to quote one more Broadway musical South Pacific, “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear, you’ve got to be taught from year to year, it’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear, you’ve got to be carefully taught.” Too many societies and cultures, for too many centuries, have taught hatred. And this hatred has led to the evil we saw in Paris last week.
This is the reason that a culture or a society must focus on developing the good inclination. This is a fundamental part of Jewish tradition. In addition, I believe it is important to note that there are deeply religious Moslems who teach their children love and tolerance. Most Moslems are not extremist jihadists. Judaism flourished in medieval Spain under Moslem rule. The voices of these moderate Moslems must be strengthened.
A culture or religion must teach people not to hate. It must teach people to love the other, people who are different, whether they are of a different race or worship God differently. It must teach people to love the stranger. Parents must teach their children that hatred and violence are wrong. Only then can we live in a world where Pharaoh no longer rules, where love has finally chased away hate. Only when cultures begin to change can hearts begin to change.
“I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name `Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey’.” (Exodus 6:3)
William Shakespeare wrote in his play Romeo and Juliet, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other word, would smell as sweet.” Juliet is telling Romeo that names do not matter, changing a name does not change who a person is. This week my daughter would disagree. She is truly excited about legally changing her last name to that of her husband.
Names matter. The number one question people ask me as a rabbi is how to find the right name for their newborn. Often I get involved in complex family quarrels about names. The Bible itself often changes the names of major personalities – Abraham, Sarah, Israel, Joshua. I come from a tradition that teaches that names reflect who we are.
God also has a name, which is first introduced in this portion. The name is spelled with the four Hebrew letters yud, hey, vav, hey. The name is unpronounceable. Various attempts to pronounce God’s name, for example Jehovah, are considered improper by Jewish tradition. The next time a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses come to your door, ask them why they are trying to pronounce God’s unpronounceable name. In Jewish tradition, the name was only pronounced one time a year – on Yom Kippur, in one place – the Holy of Holies, by one person – the High Priest. In S. Ansky’s play The Dybbuk, there is a scene which speaks of the holiest man in the world on the holiest day in the calendar at the holiest place on earth pronouncing the holiest word in the Hebrew language. When these four holinesses come together, one wrong thought could destroy the entire world.
In our common, everyday life, we do not pronounce God’s name. When we pray, we say Adonai – My Lord. When we talk, we say HaShem – the Name. We try to avoid writing God’s name. A manuscript or parchment that contains God’s Hebrew name cannot be destroyed, it must be buried. (By the way, this rule does not apply to the English word “God.” There is no requirement to write “G-d.”) Every effort is made not to take God’s name in vain.
What do the letters in God’s name mean? The letters come from the Hebrew root for “to be.” On the most basic level, they mean that God is – God exists. God is a being. This creates many interesting philosophical problems. Long ago Maimonides taught that the phrase “God exists” is not the same as the phrase “that tree exists.” We cannot use the term existence as it relates to God. To use some technical language, everything that exists in this world is contingent, it could exist or it could not exist. But God is not contingent; God is necessary. If we posit God, then God has to exist.
Allow me to suggest a different understanding of what God’s name means. It is not simply “being.” In last week’s portion, God called God’s self Aheye Asher Aheye, “I will be Who I will be.” This suggests a much more dynamic understanding of God. Rather than being, God is becoming. God is always in process. This seems to be the God of the Bible. God is affected by what happens in the world. God seems to flow, interacting with the human beings God has created.
Long ago Aristotle called God the “unmoved mover.” He envisioned a God unaffected by what happens to God’s creation. In response, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called God the “most moved mover.” God is a God of becoming, affected by everything we do. It is a beautiful image, fitting with the notion of covenant. Not only did God create us, but what we do has the potential of creating God.
When we make choices in life, what would happen if we believed every choice we make will affect our Creator? We would consider our choices more carefully. Perhaps God’s name hints at a dynamic God, ever influenced by the actions of us humans.

“Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, nor did he listen to them; as the Lord had said.” (Exodus 7:22)
On May 21, 1924 a notorious crime took place in the south side of Chicago. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb kidnapped and murdered a fourteen year old boy named Bobbie Franks. Their goal was to see if they could get away with the perfect crime. Leopold and Loeb were caught and put on trial for murder. It was here that something disturbing occurred.
Their defense attorney was the world renowned Clarence Darrow. Darrow passionately argued that the two young men were not responsible. Everything in the universe is governed by a rigid chain of causality. Whatever happens is what is meant to happen. The boys had no control over the families into which they had been born. They had no control over the way the chemicals in their brain worked. A chain of causes beyond their control led to the murders. There is no free will, simply an infinity of causes leading up to this murder. Darrow partially convinced the judge. He removed the death penalty from this case and sentenced them to life in prison.
This argument continues to come up regularly. Perhaps the most famous was the 1979 Twinkie defense used by Dan White’s attorney. White was on trial for the murder of San Francisco mayor George Moscone and supervisor Harvey Milk. (This story is wonderfully portrayed in the movie Milk, winning Sean Penn an Oscar for his portrayal of Harvey Milk.) White’s attorney argued that too many sweets such as Twinkies had diminished his legal capacity, and thus he was not responsible for his actions. Sugar took away his free will.
I hear arguments against free will all the time. Usually people blame their genes. If Shakespeare had lived today, he would not have written “The fault dear Brutus is not in our stars but in ourselves.” Rather he would have written, “The fault is not in our genes.” People blame their genes for their actions. Freud blamed unconscious sexual drives. Marx blamed hidden economic forces. People say “the devil made me do it.” We live in an age of the denial of free will.
Of course, if the world is a material place run by the laws of physics, then everything has been set in motion from the beginning of time. Scientists often view the world as being totally pre-determined. In the 1970’s neuroscientist Benjamin Libet did a famous experiment on free will. He found that before we consciously decide on a particular action, the physics of the brain have already kicked in. The mechanics of the brain decide before our will does. In other words, free will is an illusion. A mechanical brain is doing all the deciding.
For theologians free will is also a problem. After all, God already knows everything including how we will behave in any situation. If God has decided already, how can we say that we have free will? Pirkei Avot has already pointed out this paradox. R. Akiba taught, “All is foreseen [by God], yet freedom of choice is given.” (Avot 3:15) In this week’s portion God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, and then punishes him for stubbornly refusing to let the Israelites go. So does free will exist?
The answer I believe has to be “yes.” What makes us human is the ability to choose. God has already told Cain that sin crouches at the door but he can overcome it. Our entire religious faith is based on free will. Even in the case of Pharaoh, he hardens his own heart after the first several plagues. Only after given numerous opportunities to do the right thing does the Torah say that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Do the wrong thing enough times and it becomes a bad habit; we lose our ability to choose.
The Biblical view of humanity is a creature of God who is free to follow God or not. We can blame our upbringing, our hidden drives, the economic system, sugar, the devil, or God for our mistakes. But ultimately we are responsible.


“God spoke to Moses, and said to him, I am the Lord; I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, by the name of God Almighty, but by my name The Lord was I not known to them.”
(Exodus 6:2 – 3)

Throughout the Bible names are of critical importance. Often when a Biblical personality goes through a critical transformation, his or her name is changed (for example, Abram becomes Abraham and Jacob becomes Israel.) It is surprising that until now we have not learned the name of the major personality of the Bible – God. Finally in this week’s portion we learn God’s name. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob knew God as El Shaddai, usually translated “God Almighty”, but this is probably a mistranslation. (The Hebrew word shaddai means breast; perhaps a better translation is God the Nursing or Nurturing One.)
God has a name spelled with four Hebrew letters – yud, hey, vav, hey. Traditionally the name is not pronounced. In fact, the only one who ever pronounced the name out loud was the High Priest, and then only in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur. When Jews come across God’s name, they simply say HaShem “The Name”. In prayer they say Adonai
“My Lord.” The name was so holy that one of the Ten Commandments is not to use God’s name in vain. Certainly, to pronounce it with words like Yahweh or Jehovah is improper. God’s name is an unpronounceable word filled with meaning.
So what does God’s name mean? It comes from the same Hebrew root as the verb “to be.” On the most basic level, the name states that God exists. But more precisely, yud hey vav hey spell out the future tense of “to be.” The name means God will be. Or perhaps a better translation is becoming. God is always in the process of becoming. This is similar to God’s message to Moses which we read last week when Moses asks him his name. God replies, “I will be who I will be.” In the Biblical view God is not static but ever in process. God is becoming. Some thinkers, particularly those of a more mystic bent, have actually written that God is a verb rather than a noun. (Rabbi David Cooper wrote a book on kabbalah called God is a Verb.)
From this we can build a more contemporary and more satisfying understanding of God. Classical theism, whether Jewish, Christian, or Moslem, imagined a static vision of an all-powerful, unchanging God. Based on the thinking of the ancient Greeks and Romans, they pictured God somewhat like Caesar. Like the ancient emperors, God had ultimate power. Whatever happened in the universe was the direct result of God’s will. And so if we live in a universe where babies die and earthquakes strike, this must be God’s will. After all, if God is all powerful, then God could have stopped it. As Rabbi Harold Kushner wisely taught, such a God may be worthy of our respect but is not worthy of our praise nor our love.
God’s name suggests a different view of God. God is not comparable to ancient tyrants. Rather God is forever in a state of flux. God changes as we change, and is affected by what we do. This is a God of becoming. God is profoundly affected by everything we humans do. In fact this fits in with countless Rabbinic teachings. To quote one passage from the Zohar, “When Israel is worthy below My power prevails in the Universe, but Israel is found to be unworthy she weakens my power above.”
This image of a God Who is becoming fits in with the Jewish vision of covenant. A covenant requires two parties, in the Bible the parties are God and the people Israel. The people Israel are affected by what God does. But God is also affected by what the people Israel do. It is an empowering theology. God is not an all powerful tyrant but rather a loving parent who guides us, and who is profoundly affected by what we do. We become God’s partners in creation.
It is clear that such a God of becoming is a process view of God. Process theology has been embraced by many Christian thinkers who learned from the thinking of Alfred North Whitehead. Now more and more Jewish thinkers are finding great wisdom in this view of God. For example, Rabbi Brad Artson, a Conservative rabbi who is head of the Ziegler Rabbinical School in Los Angeles, recently delivered a whole lecture series on a process view of God.
Perhaps there is great wisdom in the understanding that God has a name, and God’s name means “becoming.”

“He hardened Pharaoh’s heart, that he listened not to them; as the Lord had said.”
(Exodus 7:13)
There is a story often told by motivational speakers on behalf of self-esteem. A little boy tells himself over and over, “I am the world’s greatest batter; I am the world’s greatest batter.” He throws the ball up in the air, swings the bat, and Strike One. “I am the world’s greatest batter; I am the world’s greatest batter.” He throws the ball up in the air, swings the bat, and Strike Two. Again he says, “I am the world’s greatest batter; I am the world’s greatest batter. He throws the ball up in the air, swings the bat, and Strike Three. Then he cries out, “Wow, I am the world’s greatest pitcher.”
Self-esteem is an important value. We want our young people to feel good about themselves. I love the quote I have seen on many tee shirts, “I am okay; God doesn’t make junk.” The Talmud teaches that every human being needs to say, “The world was made for me.” Self-pride is an important religious value. And yet, like any good religious value, it can be distorted. There can be too much pride.
The great weakness of Pharaoh was that he represented pride out of control. In his own eyes he was Egypt’s god. He could do no wrong. And so plague after plague comes upon him, and time and again he hardens his heart. He cannot conceive that he was wrong. He cannot imagine himself saying, “Moses, I made a mistake. I should not have enslaved the Israelites. Tell your God that I am sorry. You and your people are free to go forth into freedom.” He was a man who allowed his pride to stand in the way of his judgment.
We need pride. Without some self-pride we become what they used to call in Yiddish, shmates dishrags, people whom other people walk upon us. We have to stand up for ourselves. But pride can also become a huge weakness, an inclination that can lead to our downfall. As the book of Proverbs so aptly teaches, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” (Proverbs 16:18) Too much pride prevents us from ever saying the words we all need to say, “I am sorry. I was wrong.” No wonder that Christianity views pride as one of the seven deadly sins.
Reading through the story of the ten plagues, it is intriguing to see the change in Pharaoh. At first Pharaoh hardens his own heart. It was his own character flaw that prevented him from doing the right thing. But after about six plagues, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. It was as if the pride became built into his very nature. When we do the wrong thing often enough, we lose our ability to do the right thing. The wrong behavior becomes part of our very character. And Pharaoh represents this character flaw out of control.
Part of the beauty of the Bible is how different individuals represent different character flaws out of control. Noah could not control his drinking, Lot his greed, Esau his hunger, Moses his anger, and David his sexual drive. But perhaps the most obvious such story is Pharaoh, the man who allowed his pride to stand in the way of his good judgment.
Self-esteem and self-pride are important values. But when pride is out of control, it is a danger. Pharaoh brought destruction on his land and his people. It is easy to dismiss Pharaoh as pure evil. How many of us have allowed pride to keep us from saying we are sorry, seeking forgiveness, or doing the right thing?


“He hardened Pharaoh’s heart, that he listened not to them; as the Lord had said.”
(Exodus 7:13)
There is a story often told by motivational speakers on behalf of self-esteem. A little boy tells himself over and over, “I am the world’s greatest batter; I am the world’s greatest batter.” He throws the ball up in the air, swings the bat, and Strike One. “I am the world’s greatest batter; I am the world’s greatest batter.” He throws the ball up in the air, swings the bat, and Strike Two. Again he says, “I am the world’s greatest batter; I am the world’s greatest batter. He throws the ball up in the air, swings the bat, and Strike Three. Then he cries out, “Wow, I am the world’s greatest pitcher.”
Self-esteem is an important value. We want our young people to feel good about themselves. I love the quote I have seen on many tee shirts, “I am okay; God doesn’t make junk.” The Talmud teaches that every human being needs to say, “The world was made for me.” Self-pride is an important religious value. And yet, like any good religious value, it can be distorted. There can be too much pride.
The great weakness of Pharaoh was that he represented pride out of control. In his own eyes he was Egypt’s god. He could do no wrong. And so plague after plague comes upon him, and time and again he hardens his heart. He cannot conceive that he was wrong. He cannot imagine himself saying, “Moses, I made a mistake. I should not have enslaved the Israelites. Tell your God that I am sorry. You and your people are free to go forth into freedom.” He was a man who allowed his pride to stand in the way of his judgment.
We need pride. Without some self-pride we become what they used to call in Yiddish, shmates dishrags, people whom other people walk upon us. We have to stand up for ourselves. But pride can also become a huge weakness, an inclination that can lead to our downfall. As the book of Proverbs so aptly teaches, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” (Proverbs 16:18) Too much pride prevents us from ever saying the words we all need to say, “I am sorry. I was wrong.” No wonder that Christianity views pride as one of the seven deadly sins.
Reading through the story of the ten plagues, it is intriguing to see the change in Pharaoh. At first Pharaoh hardens his own heart. It was his own character flaw that prevented him from doing the right thing. But after about six plagues, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. It was as if the pride became built into his very nature. When we do the wrong thing often enough, we lose our ability to do the right thing. The wrong behavior becomes part of our very character. And Pharaoh represents this character flaw out of control.
Part of the beauty of the Bible is how different individuals represent different character flaws out of control. Noah could not control his drinking, Lot his greed, Esau his hunger, Moses his anger, and David his sexual drive. But perhaps the most obvious such story is Pharaoh, the man who allowed his pride to stand in the way of his good judgment.
Self-esteem and self-pride are important values. But when pride is out of control, it is a danger. Pharaoh brought destruction on his land and his people. It is easy to dismiss Pharaoh as pure evil. How many of us have allowed pride to keep us from saying we are sorry, seeking forgiveness, or doing the right thing?



“So Moses and Aaron came before Pharaoh and did just as the Lord had commanded.”
(Exodus 7:10)

Last week I wrote about “doing the right thing,” even if it is inconvenient or difficult, even if it is dangerous. I spoke about the midwives who were willing to ignore Pharaoh and spare the Israelite baby boys, and I also spoke about Moses who was willing to stand up to evil when he saw an Egyptian man beating an Israelite slave. This week centers on the ongoing confrontation between Moses and Aaron on one hand and Pharaoh on the other. Plague after plague, Pharaoh hardens his heart and refuses to let the Israelites go. Yet, Moses and Aaron continue to confront Pharaoh, speaking out for justice while ignoring any danger to themselves.
The brothers’ confrontation with Pharaoh is a classic example of the often used phrase “Speak Truth to Power.” (I always thought this phrase was Biblical in origin. It was actually first used by the Quakers a few generations ago.) The idea of someone standing before those in authority and speaking out does reach back to Biblical times. One thinks not only of Moses and Aaron but of Nathan standing before David after the king committed adultery and murder. It became a basic tactic of the great literary prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord before the kings, even when it meant endangering their own lives.
Where does one get the courage to “speak truth to power?” Last week I wrote of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and his great categorical imperative. Through our own mind, we have an understanding of how we ought to act. “Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” Kant was searching for a secular basis for universal ethics. His philosophy has become crucial in understanding Western thought. And yet there is a major problem with Kant, and with any attempt to convince people to do the right thing without God in the picture.
How often do we humans know what we ought to do? And yet we do not do it. The mind knows but hand does not follow. It takes more than knowledge to do the right thing when there is inconvenience or possibly danger involved. Many people have remarked how the righteous gentiles who risked their lives to rescue Jews during the Holocaust were often deeply religious Christians. I believe that religion at its best is crucial to motivate people to do the right thing.
Religion is based on the notion that there is a watching eye over what we do. We are help accountable in some kind of cosmic way. In the end we will be judged. The Jewish religion teaches that when we get to the next world we must give an accounting for the decisions we made in this life. However one understands how such an accounting takes place, there is a deep sense that our actions have consequences that affect us not only in this world but in some kind of world to come. Religion teaches that what we do matters.
Human beings, when confronted with a difficult decision, must look at themselves in the mirror. But they also need to consider that there is a God who is holding them accountable. Rabi taught in Pirke Avot that “[…every person] should contemplate three things and then will not come within the power of transgression: know that above there is a seeing eye, a hearing ear, and all deeds are recorded in a book.” (Avot 2:1) Even for those who do not take this literally, it is a powerful image. God cares what we do.
When confronted with a moral issue, I believe it is vital for each of us to ask the question: “What would God want me to do in this situation?” In the religious perspective, disagreeing with the ancient Sophists, “man is not the measure of all things.” Belief in a God who is watching and judging our actions is a major motivation for each of us to “do the right thing.”



“Yet Pharaoh’s heart stiffened and he did not heed them as the Lord said.”
(Exodus 7:13)

The scene plays itself out over and over again in this week and next week’s portion. Pharaoh stubbornly refuses to let the Israelites go out from slavery to freedom. God brings plague upon plague on the Egyptians, Pharaoh briefly relents, but each time he refuses to let the Israelites go. At first the Torah teaches that Pharaoh hardened his heart. After a while, the language changes to God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. It is as if the destructive behavior became a habit, built into Pharaoh’s very nature.
Some people seem hard wired for destructive behavior. Some people do the wrong thing over and over so often that the destructive behavior becomes part of their very nature. It is as if the wiring in their brain leads to inappropriate behavior. Pharaoh certainly knew intellectually that keeping the Israelites as slaves would bring suffering on his nation and his people. But his foolish pride prevented him from doing what his intellect told him he should do. Eventually his stubbornness became part of his inner being, so that he was unable to change his behavior.
Why do people continue on paths of destruction when they ought to know better? Why do people continue to abuse substances, whether drugs or alcohol, when they see that such substance abuse destroys careers and marriages? Why do people practice inappropriate sexual behavior, even if it leads to disease, unwanted pregnancies, and destructive relationships? Why do people refuse to control their anger even when they are destroying the people closest to them? Why do people spend money they do not have, smoke tobacco when they know it is harmful, and overeat even when they are not hungry?
Few of us are immune from some of these behaviors. We all seem to have some area of our lives where habits overwhelm will power, where our minds tell us “don’t do it” but our appetites want what they want. Pharaoh was a paradigm of destructive behavior. The story is so powerful because it continues to play itself out in every generation. Every one of us can use a strong dose of self-control in some area of our lives.
The Rabbis of the Talmud taught that destructive behavior is caused by the yetzer hara, usually translated “evil inclination.” “Ben Zoma taught, Who is strong? Whoever can control his inclination.” (Avot 4:1) But the Rabbis also teach that the yetzer hara begins as a spider web and soon becomes a heavy rope. It begins as a casual visitor to our home and soon becomes the master of the house. Destructive behavior begins as a choice but soon becomes a habit, part of our very nature. Even if we know better, we are unable to control our destructive behavior.
There is the famous quote, “The definition of insanity is: ‘Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result'”. Some attribute this to Benjamin Franklin, others to Albert Einstein. But if this is a definition of insanity, then we are all insane in some area of our lives. We all do things that are destructive and hope that next time the result will be different. Bad habits are part of our nature.
So we ask the question, can people change? Can we overcome addiction? Can a pattern of destructive behavior be replaced? Can Pharaoh learn not to harden his heart but rather do the right thing before the most destructive plagues destroy Egypt? Can we moderns give up behavior that is destroying our bodies, our relationships, and our families? Can a new heart and a new spirit be placed within a human being? This is the question I hope to answer when I continue this message



“I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself know to them by my name Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey.” (Exodus 6:3)

Shakespeare said in Romeo and Juliet, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.” From a Biblical perspective, Shakespeare was wrong.
Names are vital. To know a name is to know something about the essence of someone. And to actually do the naming is a powerful act. That is why, in the creation story at the beginning of Genesis, Adam is given the right to name all the animals. It shows his power over the animal kingdom. But note that following the act of naming, Adam is still lonely. The animals live on a different qualitative level of being; they are not the equals of humanity. That is why God takes Adam’s rib (or if you are a mystic, splits Adam in half into masculine and feminine parts) and creates another human.
We humans have the right to name our children. As a rabbi, I believe the question that my members ask me more often than any other regards the giving of Hebrew names. What name should we choose? How do we keep both sides of the family happy? Can we honor grandpa so-and-so with the English name and grandma so-and-so with the Hebrew name? Can we translate the name from Yiddish into Hebrew? These questions occupy a huge amount of my time.
God also has a name. In this week’s portion, God reveals that name to Moses for the first time. The name is spelled with the four Hebrew letters Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey, coming from a Hebrew root being “to be.” We humans cannot know God’s essence. We can only know that God is, God exists. Jewish tradition also teaches that God’s four letter name reflects God’s attribute of mercy. At this time, with the Israelites enslaved in Egypt and Moses doubting his role as rescuer, God needed to show God’s merciful face.
By knowing God’s name, we humans have a certain power that we would not have otherwise. That is why we are warned so strongly, do not use God’s name in vain. The third of the Ten Commandments is not speaking about swearing or writing G-d, it is speaking about the human misuse of God’s actual name. Traditionally, Jews do not use it; in fact, we no longer know how to pronounce it. Only the High Priest on Yom Kippur, when he went into the Holy of Holies, actually pronounced the holiest word in the Hebrew language, the name of God. In their day to day prayers, Jews say Adonai, literally My Lord, instead. In simple conversation, Jews simply say HaShem, the Name. God has shared God’s name with us, and with the knowledge of that name comes an awesome responsibility.
The Bible considers a change in name to be a change in the essence of a person. Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, and Joshua all go through name changes in the Bible. These happen at key moments in their lives. In Jewish tradition, when a person is sick or when they wish to direction in their lives, they change their Hebrew names. Some people actually go to court and legally change the name they were given at birth. It is a way of saying that I am reborn as a different person.
Of course, people do not name themselves. We recently had a discussion in my Torah Corps with the teenagers about names – what are their Hebrew names, why were they chosen, whom were they named after, and what does it mean? What name would they choose for themselves? The young people began to discuss a name every one has chosen – a screen name to use on email. There were some fascinating stories on why particular young people chose particular names. They were trying to say something about who they are, and whom they dream about becoming.
Shakespeare was wrong about names. Perhaps a much more accurate view is the one in the Midrash, “Every person has three names; one his father and mother gave him, one others call him, and one he acquires for himself.”



“The Lord spoke to Moses, Pharaoh is stubborn, he refuses to let the people go.”
(Exodus 7:14)

The story of Moses, Pharaoh, and the ten plagues contains some deep human insights. Pharaoh certainly knew that enslaving an entire people was wrong. If he did not know it before the plagues struck, he certainly knew it after his nation was smitten with blood, frogs, lice, etc. Yet time after time, through ten painful plagues, Pharaoh refused to yield and let the Israelites go free.
At first the Torah teaches that Pharaoh hardened his heart. After awhile, it teaches that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Eventually stubbornness and pride became second nature, as if it were actually built into Pharaoh’s personality. According to the Midrash, in the beginning, the evil inclination is like a spider web; it is easy to step out of its grasp. After a while, it becomes like a heavy rope. Pharaoh was a proud man who could not give in nor admit he was wrong. In the end, Pharaoh’s pride almost destroyed Egypt.
In classical literature, pride was considered one of the seven deadly sins. In the wisdom literature, a great teacher (Jewish tradition understands him to be King Solomon) taught, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” (Proverbs 16:18) How often does pride prevent us from doing the right thing, taking action that will help correct a situation.
I was speaking recently to one of the teens in our synagogue. She confessed to doing something quite nasty to a fellow student she disliked at school. She felt bad about her actions but was not sure what to do. I recommended that she speak to this student privately, confess what she had done, and apologize. It would be the right thing to do. Her response to me was very strong, “Why should I apologize to her? Let her apologize to me first.” We call this standing on ceremony. It is pride blinding the eyes, and preventing someone from acting properly. This is how estrangement occurs within a family or between friends. People hurt each other, and their pride prevents them from saying those simple words, “I was wrong and I am sorry.”
One of the deepest teachings of my tradition is that we need our evil inclination, including the inclination for pride. Without it, people will act like doormats, allowing people to walk all over them. Without the ability to stand tall and be proud, a person’s self confidence and self-esteem will be destroyed. People will become a shmata (“dishrag”), to use the Yiddish phrase. We need pride. But we also need a strong dose of humility and self-deprecation, the willingness to say that “I am wrong. I am sorry.” Tradition teaches that Moses was the most humble man of his generation. If a great teacher like Moses can practice humility, certainly the rest of us can occasionally lower our pride when necessary.
There is a Hasidic teaching that every human being should carry two pieces of paper in his or her pocket at all times. When one is feeling down and lowly, he or she should take out the paper that says, “What is man that you should be mindful of him… You have made him little less than angels.” (Psalms 8:5-6) And when one is feeling proud and boastful, he or she should pull out the paper that says, “I am but dust and ashes.” (Job 42:6)
There are times when it is appropriate to exhibit pride. But too often pride blinds us from doing the right thing, setting ourselves aside and saying, “I was wrong and I am sorry.” Pharaoh’s pride almost destroyed Egypt. May our pride not destroy us.



“I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, unto Jacob by the name God Almighty, but my name Adonai I did not make known to them.”
(Exodus 6:3)

For the first time, God made known God’s actual name, spelled by the Hebrew letters yod – hey – vav – hey. According to Jewish tradition, we do not try to pronounce God’s actual name (with the exception of the High Priest on Yom Kippur, when the Temple in Jerusalem was still standing.) Instead we say Adonai, literally my Lord. And in casual conversation we simply say HaShem the name.
By sharing God’s name, God shared part of God’s power. That is why we are commanded to “not use God’s name in vain.” This commandment is not about cursing, not about writing G-d, but about using the power of God’s name for an inappropriate purpose.
As I read these laws, I think about the classical medieval legend of Rabbi Judah of Prague building an artificial man, called a Golem. Rabbi Judah used the four letters of God’s name to give life to the Golem. He wrote God’s name and placed it in the mouth of his creature; some say he placed it on the forehead. With God’s name, the Golem had the power to protect the Jews of Prague from their frequent attackers. However, eventually Rabbi Judah realized that the Golem he made was out of control, and he removed God’s name. A modern version of the Golem story reset in New York was recently released in the movie Snow in August.
I thought about the Golem last week as the news broke about the cloning of a baby girl. Obviously this baby is not a golem but is quite real. (That is assuming the story is true and not simply a hoax.) By creating a new human being using the dna of her mother, we are using the powers of creation God shared with us. Some would say we are playing God. It does raise some difficult and perplexing ethical questions. By cloning a human, are we using the powers God agreed to share with us to create a better world? Or by cloning a human, are we using the powers God agreed to share with us to challenge God, perhaps to play God? Have we humans crossed a line that we should not have crossed?
At the bottom of the evolutionary ladder, bacteria create a new generation by splitting in half and making carbon copies of themselves. Animals and especially human beings are much further along on the evolutionary ladder. We are able to reshuffle the genes in each new generation.
God created a world in which the father and the mother’s genetic material are mixed up in creating a new generation. This creates a new unique human being, unlike anyone who has existed previously. Sometimes in the womb, an embryo splits and two identical twins are born who share genetic material. This is an accident of nature. No one can deny that two identical twins, although alike genetically, are unique in their personalities, life experiences, or as tradition may put it, have unique souls. At the center of the Biblical view of the world is the uniqueness of every human being. Perhaps most important, parents must embrace the uniqueness of their children.
Cloning changes in a fundamental way this God-given scenario to create a new generation. A woman gives birth to a daughter who is her own identical twin. It is an attempt to create a carbon copy of herself. It is the precise opposite of embracing the uniqueness of our children. It seems a step backwards, down the evolutionary ladder. I feel deeply sorry for any child placed in the world for the sole purpose of duplicating his or her parent.
If using God’s name means using God’s power, then we have to ask, does cloning use God’s power in vain? By creating carbon copies of ourselves, are we overturning God’s purpose? Are we creating a modern day Golem, releasing a new technology we are unable to control?
God shared God’s name, and with it God’s power with us humans. Today, as we release new technologies into the world, we must ask, are we human beings worthy of possessing God’s name?



“The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you to say, Let my people go that they may worship Me in the wilderness.” (Exodus 7:16)

The great confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh was not simply about slavery and freedom. It was also a confrontation about religion.
To Pharaoh, there was only one true faith. In Egypt Pharaoh was God and there could be no other god before him. Moses did not say, “Let my people go so we can be free.” He said in the name of God, “Let me people go that they may worship Me in the wilderness.” Pharaoh’s first reaction was, “Who is the Lord that I should heed Him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, nor will I let Israel go.” (Exodus 5:2)
Pharaoh could not accept another religion as true. The same question haunts us today; can we accept the truth of another religious faith. As a rabbi, I am convinced of the wisdom, beauty, and dare I say it – truth, of my own faith, Judaism. Must I say that if my faith is correct, then other faiths must be wrong? Or can I see wisdom, beauty, and truth in other faiths, in Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Mormonism. How far does pluralism and tolerance go?
I am reading a wonderful new book by Yossi Klein Halevi entitled, At the Entrance of the Garden of Eden. He is a practicing Orthodox Jew living in Israel, who wrote of his for spiritual meaning in Judaism’s sister faiths, Christianity and Islam. Halevi writes in his introduction, “I am a religious pluralist who believes that all the great religions are in effect denominations in one great religion, which teaches the primacy of the unseen over the visible and of unity over fragmentation. For me, the test of whether a religion is true is in its capacity to turn ordinary people into decent believers and extraordinary people into saints whose presence affirms the reality of God. By that measure, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism – and Hinduism and Buddhism – are all true faiths, regardless of their conflicting theologies.” I wish I had written these words.
One reason a love religion in general is that I am convinced religion at its best makes people better. Unfortunately, we have all seen over these past months how religion can also make people cruel. There certainly is a powerful strand in Islam that sees a war between believers and non-believers, between the Islamic world and the Western world. However, there are also moderate, tolerant voices within Islam that condemn cruelty and seek to live at peace with the Western world. Our prayer is that these voices be heard throughout the Moslem world.
There are also voices of intolerance within the Jewish world. We must condemn those who have made a sacred shrine of the grave of Baruch Goldstein, who murdered more than a score of Moslems in Hebron while they were at prayer. We must condemn those rabbis who claim that Jewish souls are superior to non-Jewish souls, or who teach that Jews have no obligation to help their non-Jewish neighbors. There are voices of intolerance and cruelty in every religious faith.
Dare I judge another’s religious faith? I am willing to declare another’s faith as true if that faith turns its adherents into more ethical, more spiritual human beings. Does this faith make people better? Does it help them to observe the fundamental principles, to love God and love their neighbor? Does it add a spiritual dimension to their life and give them a sense of purpose as they live in this material world? If another faith does this, I am prepared to say that faith is wise, beautiful, and true.



“Go unto Pharaoh in the morning, as he goes out towards the water, and you shall stand by the river’s brink to meet him, and the rod which was turned into a serpent shall you take in your hand.” (Exodus 7:15)

Moses met Pharaoh down by the Nile River at the crack of dawn and threatened to turn the water to blood. A well-known Midrash asks how Pharaoh happened to be down by the river so early in the morning. Don’t kings like to sleep late?
Pharaoh tried to pose as a god. He did not want people to believe that he had bodily needs like everybody else. So each day Pharaoh would sneak out of the palace early each morning before others were awake to take care of his needs by the Nile. Moses, who knew of Pharaoh’s habit, was waiting for him there. (Exodus Rabbah 9:8)
Moses meeting Pharaoh drove home the point that Pharaoh was not a god. He was a human being, with a human body like everybody else. Our bodies makes us mortal.
The Torah teaches that “God formed man from the dust of the earth, and He breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7) There are two aspects to our existence as humans. We carry the breath of God (the Hebrew word for soul neshama literally means breath); we are spiritual beings. There is a part of us that is eternal and unchanging. We have a soul, and it is the soul that connects us to that part of the universe which is eternal.
We also were created of the dust of the earth. We are physical, material beings, subject to the natural laws of physics and biology. Like all physical entities, our bodies must wear down and eventually die. According to the scientific laws of entropy, all physical things must eventually fall apart. Or, as W.B. Yeats wrote so powerfully in his poem The Second Coming:
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”
All physical things must fall apart eventually. Entropy must increase. The sun itself will eventually run out of fuel. According to scientists, the entire universe will one day die a heat death. We humans are material beings who live in a physical world. Eventually we too will die. Our mortality is part of what sets us apart from God, Who is immortal.
Jews believe God has no body, and exists in a dimension beyond the realm of time and space. God is not material, not subject to the laws of entropy. We sing in the yigdal prayer on Friday night, ein lo demut haguf v’eino guf – “He has no likeness of a body, and no physical body.” The second of the Ten Commandments forbids us from making a graven image of God, or associating God with any material thing in this world.
Christians differ from Jews in this belief. Christianity teaches the principal of incarnation, at one point in history God did take on a physical body and live on this earth in the form of Jesus. Even for Christians, this was a unique event. They believe that today God lives beyond the material world.
What is the practical outcome of this very ancient teaching? The Torah rejects pantheism, the view that identifies nature with God. The material world is God’s creation; it is not co-equal with God. And we humans are God’s partners in creation, living partly in a material and partly in a spiritual world. We have been placed in this world to perfect God’s creation.



“I will harden Pharaoh’s heart.” (Exodus 7:3)

One of the oldest and most difficult philosophical problems is free will versus determinism. Are we free agents acting according to our own will? Or has God already decided in advance our behavior, making us like actors in a play speaking lines that have already been written?
Today it is popular to see our behavior as pre-determined. When we behave improperly, we often claim that we are the victims of our genes, of our nature, of some inner drives that have been preset and are out of our control. Or else we are the victims of racism, sexism, poverty, social and political forces that are also out of our control. It is easy to say that we are not responsible for our behavior.
This argument is at the heart of this week’s portion. God brought ten plagues upon Egypt. (Actually, this week’s portion deals with the first seven of those plagues.) Each time, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and then brought another plague. On the surface, God seems to act unjustly. Pharaoh had no control, he was simply acting as God had pre-programmed him to act. Why was Pharaoh, and the rest of Egypt, being punished?
However, a deeper reading reveals a profound truth about Pharaoh’s behavior. For the first five plagues, the Torah teaches that “Pharaoh hardened his heart.” Only after these five does the Torah begin to teach that “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” In the beginning Pharaoh was responsible for his own stubborn behavior. Eventually, his stubbornness became second nature, almost to the point where he could no longer control it.
Judaism teaches that we humans have free will, that we can act according to our good inclination (yetzer hatov) or our evil inclination (yetzer hara). In the beginning, the evil inclination is like a spider web; it is easy to step out of its grasp. After a while, it becomes like a heavy rope. The wrong choices become second nature, as if God made us that way.
We see this phenomenon all the time. A teen, encouraged by friends, will shoplift an item. She feels guilty for submitting to peer pressure. After awhile, shoplifting becomes second nature and she does not even think about it. A married man is tempted to become involved in a forbidden sexual relationship. He also feels guilty. After awhile he has rationalized his behavior, and does not think twice about it. Soon infidelity becomes a way of life. The same can be seen of a variety of destructive behaviors: uncontrolled anger, drinking, drug use, violence, and of course, as Pharaoh has shown, stubbornness.
Improper behavior begins as an impulse. At this point, it is relatively easy to change and get on the right track. After awhile, it becomes a habit. Soon a habit becomes part of our character. It is now part of our nature, almost as if God made us that way. At this point, it is extremely difficult to change our ways. It is much easier to play victim, say “God made me that way.”
However, even now we can change. Pharaoh could have given up his stubbornness, and brought less plagues on Egypt. We are all given free will. Or to put it in the words of the Rabbis, “Everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven.” (Berachot 33b)