“For the Lord has remembered his people”
This week’s Torah portion begins with God’s solemn, dramatic declaration to the people of their imminent redemption from slavery: “I will take you out from under the burden of Egypt… I will deliver you from their bondage… I will redeem you with an outstretched hand… and I will take you for my people…” (Exod 6: 6-7). This declaration, known in the halakhic tradition as “the four languages of redemption,” is among other things seen as the source for the four cups of wine drunk at the Passover Seder.
Before analyzing this verse, why it was chosen to head this parshah, and various problems relating it, we need to backtrack to Parashat Shemot, as this verse really comes very much in the middle of the subject. The central body of the account of events leading up to the Exodus, in whose heart lies the ongoing confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh, spans the second half of Shemot, all of Va’era, and the first half of Bo (Exod 4:18-11:10). This follows upon the introductory section of the Book of Exodus, showing how the Jewish people came to be enslaved (Ch. 1), Moses’ early life (Ch. 2), and the decisive change that came about at the experience at the burning bush (Ch 3-4:17). Moses returns from the latter a changed person, charged with a sense of mission.
A few words about this meeting. God so-to-speak works hard to convince Moses to accept this role. There is no simple acceptance of the mission, as there is with other prophets (Isaiah’s “here I am; send me” [Isa 6:8] being the best-known example; but compare Jer 1:4-10; Ezek 2:1-7, 10); his reluctance to prophesy is surpassed only by that of Jonah, who fled away on a ship. Moses raises objection after objection: “who am I that I should go?” (3:11), “whom shall I say this God of their fathers is?” (v. 12), “but they won’t listen to me and won’t believe me” (4:1), etc. To each objection God reiterates, each time with a slightly different wording and emphases, the central message: I am the God of their fathers who has come to redeem them from Egypt and to bring them to a good land, flowing with milk and honey.
A brief comment about the last of these objections: “I am not a man of words... for I am heavy of speech and of tongue” (4:10). What is the significance of the ineloquence, even clumsiness, of Moses’ speech? A charming old Jewish legend that many of us learned as children [Exodus Rabbah 1.26] tells that Pharaoh, fearing the child’s signs of preternatural intelligence, showed the small Moses a lump of gold and lump of burning coal. Moses—a normalische Judische wunderkind, a “normal Jewish prodigy”—reached his hand out to take the gold, but an angel came along and guided his hand to the coal, which he then touched to his palate. This saved his life, but left him with a life-long speech impediment.
I would suggest another, more elegant and mature explanation. I perceive Moses as a retiring personality by nature—an intellectual, a mystic, or a combination of both. For years he had been accustomed to spending long hours in his own company, given over to thought and contemplation. As a result of this isolation from others, it did not come naturally to him to talk with “ordinary” people. He simply lacked the smoothness, savoir faire, and fluency of the natural politician.
God’s response is interesting. On the one hand, there is a theological statement: “who enables a person able to speak, or mute or deaf, sighted or blind, if not I, the Lord” (4:11). But immediately thereafter He comes up with a practical solution, essentially accepting Moses’ complaint: Moses will be the real prophet and leader, in direct communication with the Divine, but Aaron will function as his spokesman to the public, and even in part in his negotiations with Pharaoh. God plays a dual role here: on the one hand, he insists on making a principled doctrinal point about the proper understanding of the relation between God’s power and human action; on the other, as a pragmatic figure, He is concerned with accomplishing the practical task at hand in the best and most efficient way, and comes up with what seems the best plan to further this goal.
Upon his return to Egypt, Moses faces a two-pronged mission: to convince the people, and to convince Pharaoh. In his first tentative gropings, he meets little success in either task. Pharaoh’s response is typical of all tyrants: “Let them work harder… Let them not turn to lying things… They are lazy… therefore they say, Let us go sacrifice to our God…” (5:9-10, 17). He increases the burden on the people, by not providing them with the straw needed to make bricks; those who by chance encounter Moses and Aaron while they are leaving Pharaoh criticize them for making things worse and “giving us a bad name.” By this point in their history, the people have been so beaten down by oppression that they cannot even dream of things being different. Their psychology is one of slaves; what the Zohar refers to as “the voice being in exile”—a state where they cannot even cry out. The midrash sees their “groaning” beneath their labors (2:23-24) as the first, albeit inarticulate, sign of change. The people’s scepticism and mistrust, combined with Moses’ own sense of unworthiness and uncertainty about the fulfillment of the Divine promises, create the need for repeated reassurances—the four languages of redemption.
At this point God announces the fulfillment of the ancient promise made to redeem the people, preserved in traditions passed down from olden times: “I will surely remember you.” The people withdraw to the background and, until the Exodus, the dialogue is almost exclusively between either Moses alone, or Moses and Aaron, with Pharaoh. (Indeed, through much of the Torah, the people as such only speak in the contexts of complaining and murmuring against Moses, or actively rebelling against his leadership -- from the incidents of the manna, the quail, the splitting of the Red Sea, through the story of the Golden Calf and the series of incidents in Bamidbar, the Book of Numbers).
The Mystery of the Holy Name
The title verse of this week’s portion—“I appeared to the fathers as El Shadday/Almighty God; but by my name HVYH [a circumlocution for the name YHWH] I did not make myself known to them“ (Exod 6:3)—is one of the most difficult in the entire Bible (see my discussion in HY I: Vaera), seeming to fly in the face of the obvious fact that the name HVYH appears throughout the Book of Genesis, including conversations with and revelations to all three patriarchs. Rashi resolves this dilemma by explaining that this verse is not referring to simple knowledge of the Name, but to a manifestation of the implicit significance of the Name, its realization in history, in a way that had not occurred during the lifetime of the patriarchs. Hence, the use of the causative verb form noda’ti rather than hoda’ti: “I made promises to them, and in all of them I said: I am El Shadday; but I was not made known to them in my attribute of truthfulness [or: verification, confirmation] for which I am called HVYH, faithful to fulfill his word; for I made them promises, but did not [yet] fulfill them.”
Several other classical commentators—Ramban, Ibn Ezra, Sforno, Rasag, etc.—seem to be in substantive agreement with this view; their differences with Rashi revolve more around the grammatical and linguistic difficulties of the verse, or with their more philosophical-conceptual definitions of the meanings of the Divine Names, as opposed to the more midrashic (and later Kabbalistic) terminology of Middat ha-Din and Middat ha-Rahamim underlying Rashi’s comment. Thus Ramban (in part elaborating upon an idea first articulated by Ibn Ezra):
The matter of this verse is that He appeared to the patriarchs with this Name, through which He conducts the systems of the heavens, doing with them great miracles in which the way of the world is not negated. In famine He redeemed them from death, and in war from the sword, and He gave them wealth and honor and ever good thing…. But with my name of HVYH, by which all Being was [created], I did not make Myself known, to create new things, in changing the outcomes… Therefore, tell the Israelites that I am HVYH, and tell them once again the Great Name by which I do miracles.
We thus have here a new, dramatic and hitherto unknown manifestation of what Ramban calls “God’s Great Name.” The moment is pregnant with a deep sense of history being made, of the relationship between God and His people being raised to a new, significantly different level. No longer is this only the intimate experience of God by a few select individuals, such as the patriarchs, however deep their quiet conviction of God’s presence in their lives may have been. From now on, there is a sense of God’s redemptive power, His involvement in history, His covenant with an entire people, being made real.
To understand this properly, we need to elaborate the idea of the Divine names more fully. The two Divine Names here are taken by the classical Rabbinic Sages to signify Middat ha-Din as against Middat ha-Rahamim, the Divine attribute of Stern Judgment vs. that of Mercy or Compassion. El Shadday, translated here “Almighty God” (or for that matter the generic Elohim, “God”), signifies the God of nature, of rules and limits and boundaries—a God who is distant and impersonal, not intimately concerned with human beings. Elsewhere, Rashi quotes a midrash explaining the name El Shadday as mi she-amar la’olam dai, “He who said to the world: ‘Enough!’”—He who pushed back the waters of pre-Creation chaos or, more generally, who established the rules and limits in the world. He is the God of thunder and earthquakes, of terrifying upheavals of nature, of explosions of super-nova; and He is the Author of natural law, whether the laws of physics or uncovered by the other sciences, or of the natural law, the natural ethics incumbent upon all humankind. This aspect of God is not stern in the sense of being harsh, cruel, or vindictive; rather, it refers to an objective God, removed from the world of human needs and emotions, steadfast and implacable, who sets down rigid and immovable laws.
Middat Harahamim, by contrast, signifies that God is compassionate, empathetic, involved in history, performing redemptive acts. He is an almost palpable presence in everyday life; and, most important, He enters into a covenant with Israel. Yet to the sceptical, rationally-minded modern observer observing empirical reality, this aspect of God seems far less self-evident than the cold and distant, almost “watchmaker” God of Middat ha-Din—who is, if you will, akin to the God of 18th century Deism.
Given this, we may understand Rashi’s comment on this verse. The name not fully experienced by the patriarchs, HVYH, is connected with the dynamic combination of promises and their fulfillment. The patriarchs heard the divine promises that their descendants would inherit the land, but did not live to see it fulfilled; thus, in the deepest sense, the Divine name HVYH signifies, even more so than it does “mercy” as against “justice,” the principle of Divine involvement, of covenantal relatingness, or simply “Being With.” This is the point of Rashi’s comment on 3:14: more than cosmic, metaphysical “Being,” as has been suggested by some, God is perceived as relating intimately to his people, as a loving father who is with them in all their troubles. If you like, HVYH signifies “Presence” more than it does “Being.”
Several modern thinkers have described these same basic categories using somewhat different terminology. Rav Soloveitchik, ztz”l, in his major essay Uvikashta misham (“And You Shall Seek From There”), draws a typology of two types of religious experience: the “natural experience” and the “revelatory experience,” which largely parallel these two types, albeit in terms of their human, experiential counterpoints. Sociologist Peter Berger, in The Heretical Imperative, speaks of “inductive” vs. “deductive” modes of religious knowledge. Berger tries to provide an alternative avenue of faith for modern, secularized people who cannot accept traditional religions based upon revelation and sacred texts (i.e., where faith is derived in a “deductive” way from first principles—i.e., inherited axioms, dogmas, or literatures), in which religious truths are “induced” from our own experience of the world. In both cases, we find have a more general, universal, “natural” type of religious experience contrasted to one that is more specific; one in which God is experienced as personality, as Will, as Providential involvement in the affairs of men; hence: open to dialogue, covenant, realization. Again: Elohim and HVYH.
But there is another problem here. A series of midrashim on this passage draw a rather invidious comparison between Moses, who, in the encounter at the burning bush, repeatedly demands from God all sorts of signs and answers before he is willing to undertake the mission for which he has been chosen, and the patriarchs, who trusted in God unquestioningly, notwithstanding the numerous difficulties they encountered in their lives, and. Thus, in Exod. Rab. 6.4, God waxes nostalgic for the patriarchs:
Said the Holy One blessed be He to Moses: Woe for those who are gone and no longer with us! Many times I revealed myself to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob with the name El Shaddai, and I did not make My name HYVH known to them as I have made it known to you, and [nevertheless] they did not question My attributes (lo hirharu ahar midotai). I promised Abraham , “Go and walk in the land, to its length and breadth, for I give it to you” [Gen 13:17], yet when he wished to bury Sarah, he could not find a grave until he bought it with good money, yet he did not question My attributes. I promised Isaac, ”you shall live in this land…” [Gen 26:3], and when he wished to drink water “the shepherds of Gerar quarreled with the shepherds of Isaac…” [ibid., v. 20], yet he did not question My attributes. Jacob… [when he returned from Padan Aram] sought a place to pitch his tent, and could not find it until he bought it for one hundtred qesita, yet he did not question My attributes…
And you, at the very beginning of My mission, asked: What is My Name? And in the end you said: “and since I have come to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, You have done evil with this people” [Exod 5:23]…. “And I have also heard the cry of the children of Israel” [6:5], for they have not questioned My attributes. And even though Israel in that generation were not behaving as they should, I have heard their cry because of the covenant I have made with their fathers.…
Between the lines, we seem to be told that the fathers did not need to know me in the fullest sense through my more “powerful” name of HVYH, the “God of relation“ or of covenant, because they trusted in Me anyway. Moses, because of his doubting nature, required a more concrete kind of knowledge and greater assurances. They accepted God without questioning His attributes; without allowing their world to be upset by the contradiction between promise and delayed fulfillment. They did not demand proofs; they continued to love God and serve Him, whereas Moses, already in the opening chapters of his mission to the Jewish people, ran to God with complaints. In other midrashim as well (e.g., Exod Rab 6.1; 3), Moses is described as what would be called today an “über-hokham” or “too clever by half.”
The question that occurred to me is this: why does the Midrash criticize Moses vis a vis the patriarchs specifically within the nexus of the two Divine names? Is the “making known” to Moses of the seemingly holier, “great” name of God a sign of a higher, more profound knowledge of the Divine, or is it perhaps the opposite? Might it be that he was shown this name at this time because his faith was somehow not strong enough, not profound enough, to carry out his mission, to know God fully, through His other name? The Fathers, even though they did not “know” God as HVYH, knew him in depth in Elohim—and that was enough. Moses’ knowledge of HVYH through promises, through covenantal fulfillment, provides a solution to a certain kind of dilemma, but is also a kind of let-down. It is almost as though his being given “everything,” the fulness of the Divine Name and its realization, with all that symbolizes, somehow leads to a grosser, more tangible, and thus less profound type of faith.
It is interesting that the figure of Abraham is shown as one who came to know God specifically through his own reflection and thought, through years of pondering and puzzling over the mystery of the world, until he came to the conclusion that: “It is inconceivable that the palace [i.e., the world] does not have a master!” A natural, inductive experience of Elohim par excellence!
After composing the above line of argument, I read an essay on this portion by Aviad Stolman, published in the newsletter Shabbat Shalom, in which he reaches a similar conclusion. He suggests an interesting typology of types of faith: 1) Biblical faith, based (largely) on supernatural miracles; 2) the post-biblical (i.e. medieval) period, in which such philosophers as Rambam, Crescas, Albo, Bahya ibn Paquda, and others attempted to base faith on logical proof, which they also described by the term “mofet,” also used to refer to miracles; 3) the modern or post-modern age, in which proofs of God are no longer seen as valid, because people came to realize that “reasoning from the finite world cannot be applied to the infinite, nor from the temporal to the eternal.” Modern man can thus return full circle to a very primal, Abrahamic kind of faith in God.
More on the Divine Names (with some repetition)
“I appeared to the fathers as El Shadday / as Almighty God; but by my name YHWH I did not make myself known to them“
Why did the ancient Sages who divided the Torah into its weekly portions choose to make a breaking point at this particular verse? The late Lubavitcher Rebbe always attached special significance to the title verse of each parshah, seeing it as emblematic of the portion as a whole. In this case, this verse and those that follow convey an at once festive and solemn, upbeat note: God revealing himself, and stating in fuller terms the imminent realization of the ancient promise. Thus, the theme of God making himself seen—meaning, his power and kingdom being made manifest and known to man—is a leit-motif that runs throughout the ten plagues, the first seven of which appear in this portion. “And Egypt shall know that I am the Lord” (7:5); “that they may know that there is none like the Lord our God” (8:6); “… that I am the Lord in the midst of the land” (8:18); “to show my power and to tell of my name throughout the land” (9:16); etc., etc.
But the verse as such is one of most difficult ones in the entire Bible. It seems to flagrantly contradict the obvious fact that the name HVYH (a transposition, often used especially in Hassidic sources, for the Ineffable Name represented by the letters YHVH), appears constantly throughout the Book of Genesis, including conversations and revelations to all three patriarchs. Even if, as Rashi seems to suggest, this verse refers specifically to those occasions on which God made promises to the patriarchs, it is not consistently true. Whereas God does introduce himself with the name El Shadday to Abraham in the covenant of circumcision (Gen 17:1), and to Jacob when he returns to the Land of Israel (35:11), there are other verses in which God presents himself as HVYH. Thus, in the seminal covenant Between the Pieces: “I am HVYH who took you out of Ur of the Chaldees” (15:7)—and so on in many other places.
What then does this verse signify?
Rashi comments here that: “I made promises to them, and in all of them I said: I am El Shadday; but I was not made known to them in my attribute of truthfulness [or: verification, confirmation] for which I am called HVYH, faithful to fulfill his word; for I made them promises, but did not [yet] fulfill them.” We thus have here, not a new name for God, but a realization or manifestation of that which was already potential, but not yet realized, in the well-known name of HVYH.
Modern Biblical criticism has of course a very simple answer. Since, according to the documentary hypothesis, the Bible is compassed of several, originally separate literary strands that were woven together by a later redactor, this is in fact the first appearance of the name YHVH in the “P” or “Priestly” document, and hence is introduced here with great solemnity. In similar fashion, the elaborate presentation in Exodus 3 of this name, first as Ehyeh and then as YHVH (both of which come from the same semantic field), is the first appearance of that name in the E or Elohist strand, and it occupies a similar position.
Much ink has been spilled in Orthodox polemics with the school of Biblical criticism, and it is not my intent here to add to them. This approach raises profound ideological and theological issues, deserving serious consideration; I hope to discuss this problem in the near future in another forum. What is rarely noted, in the heat of religious polemic, is that at least for our present purposes—i.e., understanding peshat of this passage—it is of little consequence whether it is viewed from a traditional or a critical perspective. In either case, what we have here is a dramatic manifestation, either of a new name of God, or of a new manifestation of an existing name. In either case, it is clear that the moment is pregnant with a deep sense of history being made, of the relationship between God and His people being raised to a new, significantly different level. No longer is there merely the intimate, inner experience of God of a select few individuals, such as the patriarchs, however deep their quiet conviction of God’s presence in their lives may have been. From now on, there is a sense of God’s redemptive power, his involvement in history, his covenant with an entire people, being made real. As recently expressed by Bible scholar, Prof. Israel Knohl: the transition from the book of Bereshit to Shemot, from Genesis to Exodus, is one from “beloved is man, who was created in the divine image” to “my first born son is Israel.”
What then is the meaning of these names? In biblical thought, a name is not merely an arbitrary convention for identifying someone or something (a “handle,” in the lingo of the American Southwest); nor is it fully identified with the inner essence of that something, which can never be fully captured. Rather, it is an in-depth reflection of how a given thing or being is understood, perceived, experienced by others.
The two Divine Names are already taken by the classical Rabbinic Sages to signify Middat ha-Din as against Middat ha-Rahamim, the Divine attributes of sternness or judgment vs. that of mercy and compassion. El Shadday, translated here “Almighty God” (or for that matter the generic Elohim, “God”), signifies the God of nature, of rules and limits and boundaries—a God who is distant and impersonal, not concerned with human beings. Rashi quotes a midrash explaining the name El Shadday as she-amar laolam dai, “who said to the world: Enough!”—who pushed back the waters of pre-Creation chaos; more generally, who established the rules and limits in the world.
He too is the God of earthquakes, of upheavals of nature, of the terrifying phenomenon of life; and of natural law, be these the laws of physics and the other natural sciences, or of “natural law” (to utilize the term of medieval Christian theologians and which, without using the term, underlies the Jewish concept of a Noachide code of law), to refer to a presumed natural ethics incumbent upon all humankind. This aspect of God is not stern in the sense of being harsh, cruel, or vindictive; rather, it refers to an objective God, removed from the world of human needs and emotions, steadfast and implacable, who sets down rigid and immovable laws. Middat Harahamim, by contrast, signifies that God is compassionate, empathetic, involved in history, performing redemptive acts. He is an almost palpable presence in everyday life; and, most important, He enters into a covenant with Israel. But of course, this aspect of God, is far less self-evident to the sceptical, rationally trained, modern observer looking at empirical reality, than the cold and distant, almost “watchmaker” God of Middat ha-Din—who is really, if you will, almost the God of 18th century, post-Christian Deism.
Given this, we may understand Rashi’s comment on this verse. “I was not made known to them in my attribute of truthfulness… for I made promises, but did not yet fulfill them.” The name not fully experienced by the patriarchs is connected with the dynamic or combination of promises and their fulfillment. The patriarchs heard the divine promises that their descendants would inherit the land, but did not live to see it fulfilled; thus, in the deepest sense, the Divine name HVYH signifies, even more than it does “mercy” as against “justice,” the principle of Divine involvement, of covenantal relatingness, or simply “Being With.” This is the point of Rashi’s comment on 3:14: more than cosmic, metaphysical “Being,” as has been suggested by some, God is perceived as relating intimately to his people, as a loving father who is with them in all their troubles. If you like, HVYH signifies “Presence” more than it does “Being.”
All this is no compliment to Moses. To the contrary: the Midrash (Exod. Rab. 6.4; and cf. 6.1) makes a rather invidious comparison between the patriarchs, who trusted in God unquestioningly, notwithstanding the numerous difficulties they encountered in their lives, and Moses who, in the scene at the burning bush, repeatedly demands from God signs and all sorts of answers before he is willing to undertake the mission for which he has been chosen. Between the lines, we same to be told that: the fathers did not need to know me in the fullest sense through my more “powerful” name of YHVH, the “God of relation“ or of covenant, because they trusted in Me anyway. Moses, because of his doubting nature, required a more concrete kind of knowledge and greater assurances.