Friday, January 20, 2006

Shemot (Midrash)

“I Am that I Am”

This week’s portion, which opens the Book of Shemot (Exodus), recounts the early years of Moses’ life, and at their center his crucial encounter with God at the Burning Bush, deep in the Sinai desert. Here God informed him that He will take the Israelites out of Egypt, and tells Moses to present Him with the enigmatic name, Ehyeh asher Eyyeh, variously rendered as “I Am that I Am” or “I Will Be what I Will Be.” The midrash offers a variety of explanations of this name in Exodus Rabbah 3.6: “And God said to Moses… [‘I am that I am’]” [Exod 3:14].

[1] Said R. Abba b. Memel: The Holy One blessed be He said to Moses: Do you wish to know my name? It is according to my actions that I am called: sometimes I am called “Almighty God” (El Shadday); “Hosts” (Tzeva’ot); “God” (Elohim), or “He who Is” (YHVH). When I judge my creatures I am called Elohim; when I wage war against evildoers I am called Tzevaot. When I suspend the sins of a person [from punishing him] I am called El Shadday; and when I have compassion upon my world, I am called YHVH, for that Name is none other than the Attribute of Mercy, as is said, “The Lord, the Lord, merciful and compassionate…” [Exod 34:6]. This is: “I am that I am”—I am called according to My acts.

The essential point, both here and in [6], is the ineffable nature of God: anything we can say about Him is in a sense talking around the subject, as He is beyond human definition, understanding, etc. Even His names do not reflect His essence, but are merely nounal forms of what Maimonides calls “attributes of action”—the varying ways in which He acts in the universe—and as such are changing, dynamic, flowing, even evanescent and fleeting. Even the name revealed to Moses at the bush, Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, is not so much a name as an evasion of the question, an explanation that He does not really have a name at all, but Is whatever He is, can only be spoken of in terms of what He does! (Is this perhaps related to the tradition that angels, as Divine beings, have no names, only more so? See Gen 32:29; Judges 13:6, 17-18.)

[2] R. Yitzhak said: The Holy One blessed be He said to Moses: Tell them: I am He who was, and I am He now, and I shall be in the future to come. Therefore it is written “I am,” three times.

R. Yitzhak gives a more conventional theological interpretation: He is the Eternal, He who spans and exists through all of Time: past, present, future. Some Sephardic Siddurim have the words “Hayah Hoveh ve-Yihyeh” (“He was, is and will be”) at the top of each page, to remind the worshipper of the unchanging, eternal nature of God. This is close to the classical Aristotelian-Maimonidean position, in which God’s static, unchanging nature is the surest sign of His divinity, that He is totally different from human beings, or from any created thing. God is the unmoved mover, the First Cause, the Active Intellect, the eternal font of Wisdom. This position is almost diametrically opposed to articulated in [1], where God is ever-changing, fluid, impossible to pin down by any definition: like the four vowel letters of his Holy Name, the life breath of the universe, constantly changing, moving, dancing. Does the placing of that passage at the beginning of this midrash, relegating the more stable, delineated definition to #2 position, reflect a decision or preference on the part of the midrashic compiler?

[3] Another thing. “I am who I am.” R. Yaakov b. Avina said in the name of R. Huna of Zipporin: Said the Holy One blessed be He to Moses: Tell them: I shall be with them in this subjugation, and I shall be with them in the subjugation to which they are going. He replied to Him: Is this what I shall tell?! It is enough for them to have [each] trouble in its time! He said to him: No! “Thus shall you say to the children of Israel, I who Am has send me to you” [ibid.]. I make it known to you, but I shall not make it known to them.

Here, as befitting a passage preceding a great historical act of redemption, the name Ehyeh is not seen as a name of God, but as a promise: “I will be with you.” This reading is pregnant with irony: the message that the long-awaited freedom from Egyptian bondage will not mark the end of their troubles and sufferings, but is only the first in a long series of troubles—but not to worry, God will be with them, and eventually deliver them from each and every one of them. Needless to say, this is hardly the message that a rag-tag collection of slaves needed to hear at that moment; as God makes clear to Moses, this is a message for the leader[ship], not for the masses.

[4] Another thing. “I am.” R. Yitzhak in the name of R. Ami said: In mortar and bricks they stand, and to mortar and bricks they are going. And so too in Daniel: “And I Daniel was overcome and was sick” [Dan 8:27]. He replied to Him: Is this what I shall tell them?! He said to him: No! Rather, “I who Am has sent me to you.”

How does this passage differ from the one that precedes it? That the people’s future destiny will include hard, back-breaking labor, even if not actual slavery? The use of the verse from Daniel is somewhat arcane: does this mean to say that the human condition generally is tough and filled with suffering? And, if not political subjugation and hard work, then being subject to mortality and illness?

[5] R. Yohanan said: “I shall be as I shall be” to individuals, but to the many, against their will, and not to their benefit, with broken teeth, shall I rule over them, as is said: “By my life, saith the Lord, if not with a strong hand and an outstretched arm and with outpoured wrath shall I reign over them” [Ezek 20:33].

A fascinating distinction is drawn here between the [potential?] religious experience of the individual and that of the community. As I read it, the individual can attain the subtle, sophisticated religious insight symbolized by the name Ehyeh: the knowledge that God is present in all of Being, the ineffable nature of this being, possibly even mystical awakening, the flash of insight into the omnipresence and immediacy of the Divine within all of Being that cannot be embodied in words or conveyed to anyone else. On the other hand, there is such a thing as Divine rulership, of God imposing Himself upon the human polity, “reigning over them,” whether they like it or not. The God spoken of here is Lawgiver, Commander, King, who makes concrete normative demands. Without Divine rule society faces anarchy; hence, the individualistic approach to religion, which celebrates the subjective experience, the “this is my God,” is inadequate. There is also need for law, halakha, institutions, the social power and authority of organized religion to overcome the chaos and Evil Impulse—the tendency to ego and childish gratification, if not to demonic evil and destruction—that lie within the human soul..

[6] Another thing. R. Annanel b. R. Sasson said: The Holy One blessed be He said: When I wish it, one of the angels, who is a third of the world, stretches forth his hand from the heavens and touches the earth, as is said, “And He sent forth the shape of a hand and took me by the lock of my hair” [Ezek 8:3]. And when I wish: I made three of them to sit under a tree, as is said, “and they reclined beneath the tree” [Gen 18:4]. When I wish, His Glory fills the entire earth, as is said, “For do I not fill the heavens and the earth, saith the Lord” [Jer 23:24]; and when I wished, I spoke with Job from the whirlwind, as is said: “and the Lord answered Job from the whirlwind” [Job 38:1]. And when I wish—from within the bush.

This is a variation of [1], with an important difference: whereas R. Abba b. Memel spoke of the attributes of God’s activity, His differing ways of moral involvement in the world, R. Annanel b. R. Sasson focuses here on the concrete, “physical” manifestations of God’s Presence (Glory). Interestingly, this discussion includes His angels: they may be enormously large, like the angel in Ezekiel 8 who fills one third of the world, or appear as ordinary people, who sit under a tree passing the time of day. God’s Glory may be infinite, filling heavens and earth, or He may contract Himself to a humble bush —and here our midrash ends, having come full circle to the scene in Exodus 3 with which our portion began.


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