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Torah Commentary
Sh'mot (January 2, 2016)

Saul Kaiserman,
Director of
Lifelong Learning

THE SECOND BOOK OF THE TORAH is known in English as “Exodus,” which is Greek for “exit,” for it tells the story of our people’s liberation from slavery in Egypt. In Hebrew, however, the book and its first portion are called Sh’mot or “Names.” In this portion we learn the names of many figures, from Moses, Miriam and Aaron, to Moses’ wife, Zipporah, and his father-in-law, Jethro, to the heroic midwives Shifrah and Puah. Others remain anonymous, such as Pharaoh and his daughter, who rescues Moses from the Nile River. It is in this week’s portion as well that the Bible in a manner most mysterious explains what we should call God.

As described in earlier commentaries by Dr. Mark Weisstuch and Rabbi Rena Rifkin, Moses, having fled from Egypt, is tending to his flock of sheep when he sees an extraordinary sight — a bush, on fire, that is not consumed. Parenthetically, this vignette reveals to us a great insight into the character of the greatest of our leaders: Any of us would turn aside to stare if we saw a bush caught ablaze, but how many of us would have the perception and patience to realize that the bush wasn’t burning up? It is at this moment, when God sees that Moses is watching carefully, that God first speaks to Moses.

God charges Moses to bring a message of deliverance to the Israelites, but Moses expresses his doubts that they will believe he truly has spoken with God. He asks what seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable question:

When I come to the Israelites and say to them, “the God of your ancestors has sent me to you,” and they ask me: “What is God’s name?” What should I tell them?

The answer he receives, however, is not so straightforward. Actually, it appears that Moses receives three different answers. First, God responds:

Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh! I Will Be What I Will Be!
Say this to the Israelites: “I Will Be” has sent me to you!

Arguably, this is no answer at all. Sometimes translated as, “I am what I am,” a more precise translation for the Hebrew is, “I will be what I will be.” Is God suggesting that Moses rebuff the Israelites for asking such a question, saying, in effect, “How dare you question who I am? I’m God, I’ll be whomever and whatever I want to be!”

On the other hand, perhaps we should understand this answer more literally. Could God be suggesting that different people experience God in their own distinct ways, and so no one single name could ever suffice? Or, perhaps God is revealing that divinity is not static but dynamic...that who God is today may not be who God will be in the future, that even God changes over time?

God immediately goes on to give Moses a more direct answer, if still an enigmatic one:

Say this to the Israelites: Y-H-W-H

This is the “Tetragrammaton,” the four-letter name for God, sometimes written in English as “Jehovah” or “Yahweh.” Today, we read it Adonai — which actually translates as, “My Lord” — but we don’t actually know the correct pronunciation. According to tradition, this name was only said aloud by the High Priest, in the innermost chamber of Temple in Jerusalem, the “Holy of Holies,” and only in private, and only on Yom Kippur. It has been 2,000 years since anyone claimed to know the correct way to say this name. Rabbi Arthur Waskow has proposed that if you read the letters aloud, it sounds like a “whooshing” sound — yihhhhwhhhh — perhaps meant to be the sound of God breathing life into us. Many Jews won’t even say Adonai except in prayer — saying instead, Ha-Shem, “the Name.” But one thing is certain: An unpronounceable name is an intrinsic reminder that our words always will fail us when we try to define our infinite and transcendent God.

As Rachel Brumberg observed in her commentary on this portion in 2007, knowing one’s name implies a level of intimacy and provides a certain kind of power. In the first book of Genesis, Adam gives names to all of the animals, asserting his authority over them. Similarly, the pagans who the Israelites lived among believed they could control the forces of nature by beseeching the gods by name; if you wished for rain, you prayed to the rain god. In contrast to Pharaoh, who was seen as the manifestation of the sun god on earth, our God refuses to be the subject of idolatry and ensures this by having an unspeakable name.

Finally, God concludes by telling Moses to say to the Israelites:

The LORD, the God of your fathers,
The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,
Has sent me to you.

Now, something that is often observed about the Bible is that, unlike most of us, it never uses more words when fewer would suffice. Any time we see a phrase that could have been written more succinctly, we must ask ourselves why the additional words were included. In this case, God could simply have said, “The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” or even stopped after “the God of your fathers.” So why, we must wonder, does the Bible express it like this?

According to Rashi, the great medieval commentator, each of the patriarchs had a unique and personal relationship with God. These relationships emerged and developed as they voiced their aspirations and asked for support during their times of challenge. So too, Rashi teaches, we each have our own individual way of relating to the Divine, unlike that of any other.

In the Bible, and in our prayers, we refer to God in innumerable ways: Eloheinu, our God; Avinu Malkeinu, our Father, our King; Shechinah, the Dwelling Within; and hundreds of other ways. As we try to give name to the unnamable, we articulate our own desires and needs, our hopes and our fears. God gives Moses not one single answer but three because no single answer would ever suffice. Just like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, each of us has the birthright to call upon the “God of our ancestors” in our own words.

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