Va’eira, meaning “and I appeared”, recounts Moses’ conscription to be the leader of the Israelites and the first seven of the ten plagues inflicted on Egypt in response to Pharaoh’s refusal to free the enslaved Hebrews or even allow them the freedom to worship. The parsha is ominous and frustrating: it catalogues the obstinance of Pharaoh as catastrophes pile up for the Egyptians, and the reader waits for the dramatic emancipation and exodus we know is coming.
To my reading, Va’eira is also a case study in the importance of listening and breathing, with Moses set in an exemplary role of one whose strength is derived from his ability to hear through the noise of grandiose statements of authority, pessimism, and defiance that surround him.
The parsha begins with a dramatic revelation of G-d’s name: “I am the Lord. And I appeared to Abraham to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but in My name YHWH I was not known to them.” (In reality, because of the Torah’s compilation from at least three narrative traditions, the tetragram does in fact appear earlier in the text, but the source drawn from for this passage clearly emphasizes that this utterance is the first.)
Clearly, then, Moses is a prophet of an altogether different category, if he has been chosen as the first to hear this new divine name, yud-hey-vav-hey. Usually spoken in English as “Yahweh,” it is in fact unpronounceable, as it lacks any vowels in Hebrew. Translated roughly as “I am who I will be,” it has often been compared to the sound of a breath.
The text doesn’t give us any hint of why Moses was chosen for this revelation, or for the huge role of leader he is about to assume, somewhat reluctantly. But I’d like to make a guess: he knows how to listen, and he is in touch with his breath, and the collective breath of the universe. Because of this unique capacity to hear through so much buzz, he can also see possibilities invisible to those unable, or simply unwilling, to hear what he does.
For example, right after revealing the divine name to Moses, G-d instructs him:
“Therefore say to the Israelites: ‘I am the Lord. I will take you out from under the burdens of Egypt and I will rescue you from their bondage…And I will take you to Me as a people and I will be your G-d, and you shall know that I am the Lord your G-d…”
Moses dutifully speaks those words to his people, but “they did not heed Moses out of shortness of breath and hard bondage” Literally, they did not listen to him because they were out of breath. Few would fault the Israelites for being too preoccupied with their hard labor and their exhaustion to listen closely to a man they barely knew promising them that a G-d they also barely knew would soon free them. Nevertheless, it seems hugely important that their inability to catch their breath, to focus on it, is what keeps them from being attuned to the promise and reality of what Moses is telling them. Because they were out of touch with their breath – with YHWH – they couldn’t hear. Or perhaps: because they wouldn’t listen, they could not connect with YHWH, with the universal breath.
As I’ve practiced meditation more regularly over the past couple of years, I’ve learned that taking the time to just breathe and listen to that breath, or to everything I can detect in my surroundings, has allowed me to develop more poise in my daily, non-sitting life. I can see more hidden possibilities in my circumstances than I ever used to.
My kavannah, or intention, for this week is that by taking the time to listen, to be at one with our breath and the breath of the universe, we work to perceive potential and opportunities where we never would have sought them before. When we find ourselves too overwhelmed to listen, let us recognize those moments as precisely the best ones to sit (metaphorically or literally) and observe the breath that we may feel short of, and see if we can connect with every other breath to make one.