“And God spoke to Moses and said to him, ‘I am the Lord. And I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty, but through My name YHWH I did not become known to them [as I did to you].’” (Exodus 6:2-3)
Va’era opens mid-conversation between God and Moses with the latter angry and disheartened and, for the moment, silent.
He had just done God’s bidding, and it did not turn out well. He had sought Pharaoh’s permission to leave Egypt. The request backfired.
Not only did the people have to stay, but they had the additional burden of meeting their brick quota without the benefit of piles of straw.
Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters: “You shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks. Let them go and gather straw for themselves.”
Moses lost the people’s trust and they were furious with him; he turned to God in consternation.
Of course, we know that God will eventually prove worthy with Yetziat Mitzrayim – the people’s Exodus from Egypt – and will build toward that goal in this parsha with the first six plagues. But in this moment, freshly and harshly rebuked by the terribly afflicted people – with whom this former child of the palace has cast his lot, and just having rebuked God (the chutzpah of growing up a prince?), Moses listens as God pushes back.
God’s rebuttal is surprising, even seemingly random.
“And God spoke to Moses and said to him, ‘I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty, but through My name YHWH I did not become known to them [as I did to you].’” (Exodus 6:2-3) Based on a comment by Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurcanus, I imagine that God is exasperated with Moses’s insistence that He prove divine credibility.
One could imagine God saying, “In all my years with your predecessors, I just had to speak – and that was enough for them to listen. With you I need to show ID, provide aliases! Fine, I am also known as YHWH. Now are you satisfied?” Um, no. Moses is at his wit’s end. He turned to God for answers and hope – what about those big promises? In response, he gets a little nomenclature history.
As my kids say, Ma hakesher? What’s the connection? What Moses can’t see yet, is that God is not interested in the immediate interpersonal dramas. God wants to change the game. God seeks to lift the conversation from daily grinds to the far mountain – to move Moses and the people to a much, much broader outlook – one that spans time and space. Access to straw for bricks is not the point. God is done with little, personal redemptions – that’s so Ta”TRaS (around 2000 BCE), so Bereishit, so “God Almighty.”
A talmudic understanding of God Almighty reaches all the way back to week one of the creation story. God had set the world into motion and, as the universe’s growth hurled outward, God-the-Creator brought the expanding evolution to a halt, unfinished. Thus, Shaddai (Almighty) means Mi she’amar dai le’olamo – “He who said ‘Enough’ to His world.”
God Almighty was the level of divine understanding circa Ta”TRaS, a thousand or so biblical years after the creation of the world – in the era of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They lived in a world of God Almighty – a structured, limited, God-defined world in which their actions, and the changes these actions set in motion – as integral and important as they were – were prescribed and defined. God Almighty is the God-fractal of the Book of Genesis.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who carries the torch of this page, and whose Torah, teaching and humanity brings light and possibility all over the world, points out that the forefathers did know God’s holiest name: The divine name YHWH appears over 100 times in the Book of Genesis.
“Hence,” writes Rabbi Riskin, “we must explain that it is not the name YHWH that the patriarchs did not know, but it is rather the divine activities reflected in the name YHWH that the patriarchs did not experience.”
Familiarity with something is not the same as integrating it meaningfully into one’s experience of God. Abraham and Sarah transmitted a new, personal, holy relationship with God to their son Isaac.
But, in a sense, that completed a local, personal, immediate job. Moses’s frustration stems from still being stuck in Almighty-think, the understandable assumption of immediate cause and effect within a limited schema. He has yet to understand the theological evolution – even revolution – that God intends. God’s role of establishing the intricate patterns of the universe has ended – Enough! – and transformed into an open-ended, complex and dynamic world of possibility, a world in which God is creating the future, but is also created in the future.
A world in which personal redemptions give way to national purpose in covenant with God. YHWH’s world is created through the holy hevruta of God, Israel and humanity. Shabbat shalom The writer and her husband have five children and live in Jerusalem. She is the coauthor of Jewish Family & Life: Traditions, Holidays and Values for Today’s Parents and Children (Golden Books) and an activist for religious pluralism and human dignity. She is the founder of JustAdopt.net and can be followed @justadopt and @ rabbasusan.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s weekly Parasha column can be found in today’s daily paper on page 21. He will return to the Magazine next week.