VaEra – The Names of God

וידבר אלהים אל משה ויאמר אליו: אני ה’. וארא אל אברהם, אל יצחק ואל יעקב באל שדי, ושמי ה’ לא נודעתי להם

(שמות, ב-ג)

Moshe is about to embark on his mission of liberating Bene Israel from Egypt, and God gives him the covenant between Him and the People of Israel. This includes the four promises of redemption – taking them out of Egypt, delivering them from bondage, redeeming them and taking them as a People – against which we drink the four cups of wine in Passover. But before spelling out these promises, God says to Moshe:

And God (Elohim) spoke unto Moshe, and said unto him: I am the Lord (YHWH). And I appeared unto Avraham, unto Yitzhak and unto Yaacov, as God Almighty (El Shaday), but by My name Hashem (YHWH) I made Me not known to them.

(Shemot, 6, 2-3)

Immediately ask various commentators: how can this be true? We know for a fact that God appeared to all three forefathers as Hashem. For example, when Yaacov sets off from his home, he is told: “I am Hashem, the God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac.” (Bereshit 28, 13). How can God now say to Moshe that the Avot did not know him by the name YHWH?

Most commentators – Rashi, Ramban, Ra’aba – give a similar explanation: it is not the knowing of God’s name that was missing with the Avot, it is the knowing of one of God’s attributes, or midot, that they were ignorant of. The Midrash says that when God replied to Moshe that His name is “I am that I am”, he meant that God’s name can be known only through God’s deeds in the world. This is why God has many names, because we witness Him in different modes of operation.

So what is the attribute that goes with the name YHWH (Hashem)? Rashi says it is the attribute of keeping promises. God made promises to the forefathers but has not fulfilled them yet; now it is time to fulfill them (bring Israel out of Egypt, give them the Torah, etc.), so now the name Hashem is appropriate. Ramban explains it differently. The attribute of El Shaday (God Almighty) means God is operating in the world through nature; but the attribute of Hashem (YHWH) means God is operating in the world by changing the laws of nature, or in other words, by performing miracles. This explains the unnatural course of events about to take place: the ten plagues of Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, etc.

If this is so, why did the Avot not witness God’s miracles? Were they perhaps not as worthy as Bene Israel in Egypt and had to “know” God only through natural events? The Midrash provides a surprising answer: God is actually telling Moshe off! In the closing verses of last week’s parasha, Moshe complains to God: Why have you dealt ill with these people? Why did you send me? Since I came to Pharaoh he has dealt ill with this people, and You have not delivered them at all! (Shemot 5, 22-23). God’s answer to these complaints is a reprimand to Moshe. The forefathers, who knew Me only through nature, with no miracles, kept their faith despite all the hardships they had to go through. But you, Moshe, you’ve only just started your journey and after one meeting with Pharaoh you dare question Me?

This “weak faith” of Moshe forces God, so to speak, to change His ways, from El Shaday who operates through nature, to YHWH who operates through miracles. It is not that the Avot were unworthy of miracles; quite the contrary. The generation of Moshe was not as worthy as the generation of the forefathers in terms of faith in God, so they had to see miracles in order to believe.

In conclusion, regarding this “questioning of God” by Moshe, it is interesting to note how God responds. The opening verse of our parasha says: “And Elohim spoke unto Moshe, and said unto him: I am Hashem”. We know that Elohim denotes the attribute of Din, of God doing justice, and Hashem denotes the attribute of Rachamim, of God being merciful. When Moshe questions God, at first God wants to do justice, to punish Moshe, hence “ And Elohim spoke unto Moshe”. But immediately God realises that Moshe spoke out of pain for Bene Israel and it is his weakened faith in light of the circumstances that drove him to question His ways. So he becomes merciful and continues: “and said to him: I am Hashem”. God switches from justice to mercy.

The idea for this week’s Parasha Thought is from Nechama Leibowitz and other sources.

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One thought on “VaEra – The Names of God

  1. Pingback: Torah Thoughts « Nafka Mina

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