Shemot: G-d, who are You?

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Faith & Doubt
05 Jan 2010

Moshe is an unwilling leader. Rather than campaigning for the position, he argues the counter. In the end, he loses his argument with God (a fairly predictable conclusion) and emerges as our greatest leader in Jewish history, bringing a bedraggled and downwardly mobile people out of Egypt, forging them into a nation, facilitating Matan Torah, nobly defending them and finally departing the scene with his beloved people perched at the doorstep of Eretz Yisrael.

As Moshe’s arguments melt away and the dawning realization occurs to Moshe that he must lead, he poses to God a curious question:

Moshe said to Elokim, “Behold, when I come to the B’nei Yisrael and say to them, ‘The G-d of your fathers sent me to you,’ they will say to me, ‘What is His name?’ What shall I say to them?”

Curious, for one wonders who is the intended audience and with what are they grappling? It seems unlikely that they are questioning Moshe’s authenticity, for that conversation takes place a few verses forward: [4:1-3]

Moshe answered and said, “They will not believe me. They will not listen to my voice. They will say, ‘Ad-noy did not appear to you.’ Ad-noy said to him, “What is that in your hand?” He said, “A rod.”[G-d] said, “Throw it on the ground.” He [Moshe] threw it on the ground and it turned into a snake. Moshe ran away from it.

Nor does it seem plausible that the question is one of: How can I prove to them Your (God’s) authenticity for God’s answer does not provide an apparent solution?

Elokim said to Moshe, “E-heyeh Asher E-heyeh; [lit. I shall be whom I shall be]” and He said, “This is what you must say to the B’nei Yisrael, ‘E-heyeh sent me to you.’ “

Most of us probably know someone who claims that he has spoken to God [or speaks for God]. The nonbeliever, Rabbeinu Bechayei points out, cannot possibly be moved by Moshe’s claim that Hashem appeared to him – for it is unverifiable. And for the believer, the response appears superfluous?!1

Finally, we must understand a double – double – single.

  1. Double – Why the double terminology of E-heyeh asher E-heyeh, a phrase that the Shulchan Aruch notes has the complete status of God’s name?
  2. Double – The second double, a bit more subtle appears after Hashem gives the E-heyeh answer, he gives yet a second answer to Moshe’s question of what is His name: El-him continued talking to Moshe, “This is what you must say to the B’nei Yisrael, ‘Ad-noy, the G-d of your fathers, the G-d of Avraham, the G-d of Yitzchok, and the G-d of Yaakov, sent me to you. This is My eternal Name, and this is how I am to be mentioned for all generations.‘”
  3. Single – After Hashem relates to Moshe he is the double E-heyeh, he tells Moshe to tell Bnei Yisrael a single E-heyeh.

Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim begins:

When God appeared to Moshe…to bring them the message, Moses replied that he might first be asked to prove the existence of God in the Universe. For all men, with few exceptions, were ignorant of the existence of God; their highest thoughts did not extend beyond the heavenly sphere, its forms or its influences. They could not yet emancipate themselves from sensation and had not yet attained to any intellectual perfection. Then God taught Moses how to teach them…by saying E-heyeh asher E-heyeh, a name derived from the verb hayah in the sense of “existing,” for the verb hayah denotes “to be,” and in Hebrew no difference is made between the verbs “to be” and “to exist.”…The first noun which is to be described is ehyeh; the second, by which the first is described, is likewise ehyeh….This is, therefore, the expression of the idea that God exists, but not in the ordinary sense of the term; or, in other words, He is “the existing Being which is the existing Being,” that is to say, the Being whose existence is absolute. The proof which he was to give consisted in demonstrating that there is a Being of absolute existence, that has never been and never win be without existence.

Prior to the message of Divine redemption, Moshe must prove to Bnei Yisrael the existence of God. It would seem that, for Rambam, Moshe’s audience is the nonbelievers, and his task is to teach them emunah. Ramban emphatically rejects this:

How can it be that the Elders of Israel would doubt the existence of God and his Providence, for they are wise and recipients of the tradition from their forefathers?

Two solutions for Rambam: Either Moshe is teaching Bnei Yisrael – the foundations of intellectual faith. Surely, they were believers, but Moshe was teaching them how to prove God’s existence [something that we will not discuss in this context].

Another solution [my admitted preference]: Perhaps the Rambam’s point is not a simple belief in his existence, but in the nature of His existence. Moshe is teaching Bnei Yisrael – the believers, those that take God’s existence as axiomatic, the deep notion that belief in God is not merely a reality amongst other realities. God does not merely exist. He is the only essential existence.

Things that exist can either be contingent or necessary. A contingent being is dependent upon something else for its existence. We are all contingent; We need air to exist; without trees there would be no air; without water there would be no trees; without oxygen there would be no water. We need parents to exist and our parents needed their parents. (You get the picture.) That God exists was clear to Moshe’s audience. That God is essential and not contingent was the point that Moshe sought to emphasize.

For the implications of God’s essentialness are critical: An essential God means that everything is dependent upon Him and nothing exists without Him. In our lexicon: Ein Od Milevado. Thus Moshe, on the cusp of liberating his people, reminds them:

Jews, as you are mired in the morass of Egypt – understand that Hashem is behind it all. Everything comes from Him; do not get caught up in the smokescreen. You may not comprehend the purpose and meaning of the Egyptian exile; nevertheless please recognize that it has meaning and that it too comes from God. And, just like He put you in, He can take you out!

Ramban goes with a different approach. Moshe’s question is for the believer: It is a simple and poignant one.

As Divine proxy, who, may I ask, am I representing? There are many apparent aspects of God: there is the patient Hashem – Shakkai; there is the God of Judgment – Elokim; there is the God of mercy – YKVK. There is the hidden presence [as He appeared to the Patriarchs/Matriarch] and the manifest presence [as I experience Him now]. As I am to embark upon my mandated role as redeemer of Israel, please give me and them a picture of what to expect.

Hashem’s answer is that “I am judgment which shall be mercy.” You might perceive me in one particular fashion – through your limited perspective, but there is ultimate unity. It is your job, Moshe, to see that achdus. When you present me to Bnei Yisrael, do not use the double E-heyeh; that is too complicated for them. To the people, present Me as merciful, but you must know that ultimately all the pictures merge. E-heyeh asher E-heyeh – My Being now, even as it appears to you as judgment, is the same as the Being of mercy.

One final piece – why the double answer? Rabbeinu Bechayei cryptically distinguishes between muskal and mekubal. Perhaps his point is that many Jews are fine with apprehending Hashem through their parents’ lens. They are simple and beautiful people who have no need for fancy philosophy, in-depth cosmology or any such sundry topic. This is Hashem’s second answer. For those who ask what is Hashem’s essence, the answer is that He is the same God that your father believed in. Beautiful, unvarnished emunah peshuta – I believe because my father believed. This is what he calls the derech hamekubal.

And what of those who don’t trust their father, for whom simple faith is simply not enough? The answer, Hashem says, is E-heyeh asher Eheyeh – they can find Me themselves, through their own probing and soul-searching. I can be located, says Hashem, everywhere you look for Me. I am where I am – which is everywhere. In the words of the Kotzker Rebbe, where is God? wherever you let him in.

Armed with answers for the searching faithful – Moshe the redeemer begins his mission. Let us complete it speedily in our days.


1 Maimonides in Moreh Nevuchim [1:63] formulates it as such: Moses was correct in declaring, “But, behold, they will not believe me, for they will say, The Lord hath not appeared unto thee” (ib. iv. 1); for any man claiming the authority of a prophet must expect to meet with such an objection so long as he has not given a proof of his mission. Again, if the question, as appears at first sight, referred only to the name, as a mere utterance of the lips, the following dilemma would present itself: Either the Israelites knew the name, or they had never heard it. If the name were known to them, they would perceive in it no argument in favor of the mission of Moses, his knowledge and their knowledge of the divine name being the same. If, on the other hand, they had never heard it mentioned, and if the knowledge of it was to prove the mission of Moses, what evidence would they have that this was really the name of God? Moreover, after God had made known that name to Moses and had told him, “Go and gather the elders of Israel…and they shall hearken to thy voice,” (ib. xvi. 18), he replied, “Behold, they will not believe me nor hearken unto my voice,” although God had told him, “And they will hearken to thy voice”; whereupon God answered, “What is that in thine hand?” and he said, “A rod” (ib. iv. 2).

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.