Parshat Vaera: When Moses Didn't Listen to God

Video of the Rabbi and Artist in conversation about the Parsha:

Artist David Wander:

Dr David Kraemer:

Piece Description, David Wander, “Vaera”:

The two paintings show different sides of Moses. On the right we see the representation of a man, Moses, being told what to say, what to do to carry out Hashem’s plan. The head and face are a scaffold of a man being filled by these directions. The painting on the left shows the trauma of Moses’ life. Being burned as a child left him frightened and a problem speaking, despite which he is asked by Hashem to be the spokesman. Illuminated by the burning bush, he is surrounded by the plagues he will soon announce. The four cups represent the promise of redemption and recall the seder when we all are to see ourselves as if we were personally liberated.

Discussion Questions:

1. What elements from the image on the left are kept in the image on the right? How does seeing both parts of this image side-by-side affect your understanding of Moses’ role in the emancipation story of a people from slavery? Do the pairing of these images together draw out the monotony or nuance of this role?

2. Moses’ disembodied head controls the main focus of both images and floats over the scene. How is this looming depiction in conversation with this particular bible narrative? What sorts of questions does it bring up in you about free-will, prophesy and our relationships with G-d?

3. Hands feature prominently in both images, and in the four bottom panels of the image on the left. What are each of these hands doing? What symbolic significance do hands connote to you?

4. The encounter at the burning bush is the moment in which Moses first encounters G-d. Why does David Wander choose to single out this moment among the many other snapshots in the borders of this piece? Can you point to a burning bush experience in your own life ie a moment so character defining that upon crossing its threshold you were forever changed? Does this piece challenge or propose that such moments exist?

Parshat Vaera וארא
by Dr. David Kraemer

When we first meet Abraham (then “Abram”), he is a voiceless figure—spoken of by the Torah’s narrator (Genesis 11, end), spoken to by God (Genesis 12, beginning), but without a voice of his own. In fact, before being addressed by the momentous divine command, “Get you out of your land…” (Gen. 12:1), we know almost nothing about him.

How different is our introduction to Moses! Long before God is introduced into the Moses story, we learn about Moses’s birth and salvation from death (Ex. 2:1-10), his willingness to stand up for the oppressed, even risking his life (2:11-4), and his fleeing to another territory, where he persists in defending the weak (2: 15-7). Throughout these events, Moses has a clear voice, both the “voice” of his actions and the voice of his protest (2:13). And his clear, strong voice continues even when he meets God at the burning bush; each time God declares to Moses that he should serve as God’s messenger to Pharoah and to the people, Moses pushes back, insisting that God choose someone else (Exodus chapters 3-4). Moses has a spirit of independence, along with a clear personal conscience, and he doesn’t hesitate to express himself, even in the face of God.

When we recognize all this, it comes rather as a shock when it becomes clear that, as “Va’era” begins, God is demanding of Moses that he become merely a mouthpiece, repeating the words and actions scripted by God but suppressing his own agency—his own personality. So, to begin with, in 6:6 and following, God dictates the precise words Moses should repeat to the Israelites: “I am the Lord. I will free you… I will redeem you… I will take you…,” and so forth. Not “God will free you,” with Moses speaking of God in the third person, but “I will free you.” Expressing God’s words in the first person (“I… I… I…”), Moses is erased; it is as though beyond his voice (ironic!) he doesn’t exist.

This pattern of God dictating the script and Moses enacting it continues as the action heats up. Thus, when Moses is first about to approach Pharoah, God commands, “when Pharoah speaks to you and says, ‘provide your sign,’ you shall say to Aaron…” (7:8-9). In response, the text says, Moses and Aaron “did just as the Lord commanded” (7:10). Likewise, further on (7:16 and following), God dictates the script and Moses and Aaron enact it (vs. 20). Moses seems to have become little more than a puppet, hardly the Moses to whom we were first introduced!

What has happened here? We might speculate that to be God’s perfect messenger, Moses must empty himself of himself, becoming a tool for the divine. After all, who can improve on the script of God? But if that is the case, then why did God care so much about making Moses his messenger? Any puppet would have served. God certainly didn’t need a man of independent spirit, motivated by justice!
The answer may lie in the part of the story where this pattern breaks down. In Exodus 7:4-8, in the midst of the plague of the frogs, Pharoah calls to Moses and pleads that the plague cease. Moses responds by inviting Pharoah to offer a deadline, and Pharoah answers, “tomorrow.” Moses responds, in effect: “you got it! Our God has the power to do anything!” Then Moses calls out to God, and “the Lord did as Moses asked” (vs. 9), removing the frogs precisely on schedule. Moses writes his own script here, and God becomes an actor in that script. Even in his capacity as messenger, Moses has agency we didn’t earlier see. It is Moses, it appears, who chooses when to be personally present and when to “self-efface.” Sometimes his task calls for one mode, sometimes for the other.
It is this duality—this choice—that I see represented in David Wander’s two images of Moses the messenger. In the first, earlier, rougher image, Moses is hardly present. His face is effaced, its structure a mere scaffolding, to be filled in by the Divine Spirit as the Divine Spirit requires. In the second, Moses is a fully formed personality, one that lives its experience on its face. We see the burnt mouth, the furrowed brow, the tired eyes, and the worn complexion. This is a personality whose surrounding story has been filled in—the trauma and injury of childhood choice, the fear and brutality of the plagues, the effort and trials of God’s promised salvation (as represented by the cups). This, too, is God’s messenger, but also his own.

So which choice must we make when we are called upon to follow God’s command? Must we erase our personalities, our wills? Or may we be fully God’s servants while remaining fully ourselves? Pious people through the ages have embraced both choices—one or the other—as the best path. I would like to believe that God’s call doesn’t demand self-emptying, but I recognize that there may be times for both options.

First Take Off Your Shoes
by Ruth Yudelson

God spoke to Moses, and He said to him, “I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob with [the name] Almighty God, but [with] My name YHWH, I did not become known to them.”

There are precious few things to do here:
we wake, breathe, dream a touch,
try to love a little better than our fathers did—
We babes were fed on boiling bottles
so we’re raised with burning lips, but somewhere in the Bible,

Moses wanders shoeless.

Abraham reasons out the divine;
Isaac’s rather clueless,
and Jacob says I’ll show you mine if you show me yours first—
A clever man, who knows not to lose his shirt
for a God that can’t provide a roof.
Moses doesn’t ask for proof. Somewhere in the Bible,

Moses wanders shoeless,

yes! unshod!
He disrobes for a God that he has yet to truly meet;
God said no more separation;
God said bring your holy feet and find this holy ground.
And Moses didn’t ask if the burning bush
would burn him down, so somewhere in the Bible,

Moses wanders shoeless

and I’d like to think he never puts them on again,
that he becomes a kind of nudist
who travels through the desert feeling every stone.
With nothing between him and everything, he never feels alone
and God gets naked too.
God says here’s my name.

I wasn’t ready until you.

There are precious few things to do here
we wake, breathe, dream a touch,
try to love a little better than our fathers could.
We go back to their lands and their notions of good
and sometimes our throats stay buried by their knives
even when someone else, in the end, gets sacrificed. Our stories repeat. Our patterns complete.
I used to dread the thought of that burning ground touching my feet Because when I looked at my father I wasn’t taught this— You give a babe a boiling bottle and we grow a bitter lisp: an aversion to nakedness. a clothed and gridlocked tongue Moses’ stutter wasn’t the only thing he had to overcome. He loved his way to a side of God his fathers never knew. By which I mean to say— I wouldn’t mind it if you sat a while.

But let’s first take off our shoes.