Transcending Our Limitations

This week we read Parshat Vaeira, the Torah portion in which the Egyptians are struck by the first seven of the ten plagues recalled each year during the Passover Seder. Each plague could be discussed at length and in great detail and perhaps we will take a closer look at them during Passover. However, for now, we will look at how this week’s Torah portion teaches us to break free from our own individual ‘Egypt.’

At the beginning of Parshat Veira, G-d replies to a question Moshe (Moses) raised at the end of last week’s parsha. Last week after Pharaoh increased the manual labor of his Hebrew slaves, Moshe confronted G-d asking: “Why have you mistreated this people?” (Shemot 5:22). In our Torah portion G-d replies to Moshe by saying to him: “I am G-d. I revealed Myself to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov with the name Almighty G-d (Kel Shadai), but with My name “Havayeh” [the name for G-d spelled yud, hey, vav, hey, which is not pronounced], I did not become known to them.”

The first thing that must be addressed is Moshe’s question. Chassidut (the esoteric secrets of Torah) explains that the question Moshe asked of G-d was not inappropriate or disrespectful. Moshe sought to understand G-d’s actions, because he served G-d primarily through his intellect. This is why the Torah – the wisdom of G-d – was transmitted through him. By contrast, the patriarchs (Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov) served G-d primarily through emotion, intuiting G-d’s will before the Torah was given. Since the primary emphasis of the Divine service of the patriarchs was not intellectual, they never questioned G-d or challenged Him for an explanation of His actions. Only Moshe did this, asking G-d, “Why have you mistreated this people?” In light of our understanding that Moshe primarily served G-d through intellect, it is easy to see that Moshe was not being insolent in asking this question. By asking this question, Moshe sought to come closer to G-d and to forge a stronger bond between himself and the Creator. Lacking understanding of G-d’s actions weakened Moshe’s intellectual bond with G-d and by asking this question he attempted to strengthen it.[1]

G-d responded to Moshe by saying that He never revealed Himself to the patriarchs by His name, ‘Havayeh’ (His true name). This name for G-d denotes transcending limitations. In essence, G-d was telling Moshe not to serve Him through intellect alone. By combining his service of G-d through intellect with that of the patriarchs – emotion and faith – Moshe would be able to serve G-d without limitation.[2]

The intellect can enable a person to understand Torah and to appreciate the greatness and majesty of G-d. It can also help a person recognize the Creator. However, the intellect on its own is cold and lifeless. G-d must also be served through the heart. A Jew must serve G-d even when he/she does not understand G-d’s actions and a Jew must serve G-d with joy, gladness, and passion. No matter how much one may think one understands G-d’s Torah, a person must realize that he/she is a fallible human being with a limited intellect. Compared to G-d “the wise [are] as if without knowledge and the men of understanding [are] as if [they are] without knowledge.”[3] It may seem counterintuitive, but by recognizing our own smallness we can connect with the Infinite and transcend the limitations of own shortcomings.

In connection to this week’s parsha and its message of transcending limitations, the Rebbe Rayatz (1880-1950) said in the name of his father, the Rebbe Rashab (1860-1920) that “the exodus from Egypt foreshadows every individual’s personal departure from limits and boundaries…Undergoing a personal spiritual ‘exodus from Egypt’ involves liberating oneself from the limits and boundaries of the world, while remaining in the world. In other words, while being involved in the world, one ought to constantly aspire to be outside its bounds. One must remove the confinements and perceive the truth – that the world itself is in fact good, for after all, this is what G-d willed.”[4]

[1] The Gutnik Edition Chumash. 33

[2] Ibid.

[3] Siddur Tehillat Hashem Morning Prayer

[4] HaYom Yom 25 Teves

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