Sometimes, when a friend acts in a way that surprises us, we ask in mock astonishment, “Who are you?” This is how we start parasha Va’eira.
Last week, Moses demanded of Pharaoh that he let the Children of Israel leave Egypt for a three day festival to worship God. Not only does Pharaoh refuse, but he decrees the Jews have to make their usual quota of bricks and now have to gather their own straw to make the bricks. The foremen of the Israelites see Moses and Aaron leaving the royal palace. The foremen tell Moses and Aaron that God will judge them because their demand has made the Israelites abhorrent in the eyes of Pharaoh and his servants “to place a sword in their hands to murder us.”
Moses asks God why He has done evil to the Israelites, and why God sent him. Moses says, “From the time I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your Name he did evil to this people, but You did not rescue Your people.”
Now, at the beginning of Va’eira, God answers Moses. “I am Hashem. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as El Shaddai [Almighty God], but with My Name Hashem I did not make Myself known to them. Moreover, I established My covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their journeying, in which they journeyed.” Rashi teaches that the name “Hashem” (the four-letter name of God) emphasizes that God fulfills divine promises. God is explaining that now is the time the promises to the Patriarchs will be fulfilled.
In last week’s parasha, recall Moses was trying to convince God that he was not the man for the job of liberating the Children of Israel. He said, when I tell them that God has sent me, what shall I say when they ask “What is His Name?” God answered, “I Will Be What I Will Be.” Rabbi Shlomo Riskin (Torah Lights: Shemot) explains that God created everything, and set whatever limits these creations would have. God gave humanity the ability to make their own decisions, making us God’s partners in creating history. So God chose Moses to help make the part of history we know as the Exodus, which in turn would lead to fulfilling God’s promises to the Patriarchs regarding the land we now know as Israel.
God’s names really are just descriptions of what God does. God makes promises and keeps those promises. In this parasha we see the first seven plagues that God sends down on Egypt as the first steps in taking the Children of Israel out of slavery to their promised land.
If the things you do are your names, what “names” do you go by?