The Four Steps Of Liberation

The unfolding experience of liberation enables the knowledge of new aspects of God.

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If we can speak of a Jewish "liberation theology," then its roots lie here, in Parashat Va'era, in God's second revelation to Moses. Their first encounter took place at Mt. Horeb, when God introduced Godself to the reluctant prophet by means of a burning bush. Now Moshe has returned to the land of his birth, the land of Egypt/Mitzrayim, where his people suffer the burdens of slavery. Here the Ultimate is introduced once again:

"I am YHVH. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name YHVH…" (Exodus 6:2-3). 

God's Names

On first reading, this is quite a strange statement. This particular name of God, YHVH (the unpronounceable, ineffable Name), was used quite liberally throughout the book of Genesis, and in fact this is the name that God uses during that first encounter with Moshe at the bush! Certainly the patriarchs, and Moshe himself, were familiar with this particular name of God?

Rashi, the early medieval commentator, notes that the phrase lo nodati, translated here as "I did not make Myself known," should actually be read as "I did not become known." Rashi suggests that what is at issue here is not a particular epithet for God, but an aspect of Godliness that did not "become known" until this moment. Something is being revealed here to Moshe that has never been revealed before.

What Does This Name Denote?

The first thing we notice is that the fullness of this name "YHVH" becomes known in the heart of that paradigmatic place of exile and oppression: the land of Mitzrayim. A name that incorporates within it a timeless yet dynamic sense of Was/Is/Will Be, a name that denotes Becoming and Possibility, is revealed to Moses as part of a message about the nature of oppression and liberation. The message continues:

"I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am YHVH. I will take you out from the labors of the Egyptians, and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments, and I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God." (Exodus 6:5-7)

Stages of Liberation

God here outlines for Moses four stages in the process of liberation. There are many ways to understand these stages. To be "taken out" could refer to being removed--or removing oneself--physically from an oppressive situation. Hasidic commentators have noted that the first stage in the Israelites' redemption was actually their outcry to God--that until that point, they were so subjugated that they were not even aware of their own oppression. To be "taken out" could thus also refer to an ability to even understand that one is oppressed, that there is the possibility of being removed from the bondage one suffers.

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Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Toba Spitzer is the rabbi of Congregation Dorshei Tzedek in West Newton, Massachusetts.