Thursday, January 11, 2007

I Will Be What I Will Be

“In the beginning…”

Bereishit begins with a bang. Right from the get-go, it grabs the reader with the mystery and drama of creation. In contrast, Shemot’s opener pales. The Exodus story may be Hollywood material, but somehow, “And these are the names…” just doesn’t have the magic of Bereishit’s opening lines.

There is more to this contrast than mere literary style. In the beginning of Bereishit, G-d is everywhere. As the Creator, He is literally the only actor on the stage. In the beginning of Shemot, however, the situation is different. G-d is conspicuously absent.

The Jews experience a population explosion and G-d is absent. A new, anti-Semitic Pharaoh rises to power and G-d is absent. The Jews are oppressed and enslaved and G-d is absent. Jewish babies are thrown in the river – and G-d is still absent. Terrible things are happening and G-d is nowhere to be seen. In the beginning, G-d called all the shots. Where is He now?

Finally, G-d appears:

The king of Egypt spoke to Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shifra (pseudonym for Yocheved, Moshe’s mother) and Puah (Miriam). He said, “When you deliver Jewish women, you must look at the birthstool. If [the infant] is a boy, kill it; but if it is a girl, let it live.
The midwives feared G-d and did not do as the Egyptian king had ordered them. They allowed the boys to live… Because the midwives feared G-d, He made them houses. (Shemot 1:15-17, 21)
If we were expecting G-d to arrive like a knight in shining armor to save the day, we have set ourselves up for disappointment. His first appearance is nothing more than a cameo. The women fear Him and He rewards their bravery. That’s it.

Actually, it’s even less than that.

When the Torah says “He made them houses” it doesn’t mean that two Frank Lloyd Wrights fell from the sky. We’re not talking here about houses, we’re talking about Houses. Rashi explains:

“He made them houses” – the Houses of Kohanim, Levites and Kingship… Kohanim and Levites from Yocheved and Kingship from Miriam as explained in Talmud, Sotah 11b.
The reward is marvelous and appropriate too. In return for saving the children of their fellow Jews, these two women merit to mother the greatest dynasties of our nation. But the reward was long in coming. Yocheved didn’t even live to see it; she died before her son Moshe returned from Midian to redeem the Jews. As far as she could tell, her efforts didn’t amount to much. After the failure of his midwife plan, Pharaoh simply declares that all baby boys are to be discarded in the Nile.

For the Jews of Egypt, G-d’s first appearance goes by completely unnoticed. In the beginning of this book, G-d’s presence and providence are invisible – even when He is right there! What is the meaning of this? If G-d is there, why doesn’t He put an end to the suffering?

The answer, of course, is unknowable. “For My thoughts are not your thoughts and My ways are not your ways, said G-d” (Isaiah 55:8). But this much is clear. Somehow, in the midst of exile, slavery and terror, G-d is present, rewarding every act of kindness with eternity.

Later in the parsha, when the wheels of redemption begin to turn, Moshe has a rendezvous with G-d at the Burning Bush. G-d directs him to return to Egypt and redeem the Jews, and G-d promises to be with him every step of the way. Moshe responds with a most unexpected question:

“When I go to the Israelites and say ‘Your fathers’ G-d sent me to you’ they will ask me what His name is. What should I say to them?” (Shemot 3:13)
What a strange question! What makes Moshe think that the Jews would quiz him on Jewish trivia at a time like this?! What does it matter what G-d’s name is?

The answer is that G-d’s names are not arbitrary; they describe the different divine attributes. To ask for G-d’s name is to ask this fundamental question: In what way is G-d relating to us right now?

Moshe is right in thinking that the Jews would challenge him with this question. You claim to be a messenger of the G-d of our fathers? Then maybe you want to explain where He’s been all these years? If He cares about us so much, why are we enslaved and why are our children at the bottom of the Nile? In what way does G-d relate to us at all? What is the name of the G-d of our fathers?!

G-d understands the question. He tells Moshe to teach the Jews this new Divine Name:

“I Will Be Who I Will Be.”
An enigmatic answer, to say the least. As a name, it has the authoritative sound of one who is not to be questioned, but what does it mean? The Talmud explains:
G-d told Moshe, “Go tell the Jews, ‘I have been with them in this enslavement and I will be with them in the enslavement of [future] exiles.’” (Berachot 9b)
This is what G-d wants to say to the Jews. Although I have been invisible for a long time and you have suffered a crisis of faith, know that I have been with you all along. No, it doesn’t make any sense to you, but this is the difference between Genesis and life on earth. You can expect it to happen again.


  1. Rabbi Gordon,

    Quick question from the later part in the parsha:

    “Hashem instructs Moshe in the use of the staff which he will employ to demonstrate miracles to Pharaoh. Moshe, still unconvinced that he is the right person, cites his speech handicap. Hashem dismisses this objection also, and expressing anger, insists that Moshe go. He may share the task with his older brother Aharon.”

    Question: If we are told to emulate God and “walk in his path”, does it follow from this week’s parsha that it is okay to be angry with our kids and to express it when they clearly disobey instructions (in form of command or a plea) ? I am not asking permission to be excessive (scream, yell, beat our kids, God forbid, etc.). Rather, I am trying to learn how God was expressing his anger and how should we do it, when conflict arises.

    After all, God was upset with Moishe Rabbeinu… Imagine, me and my little monsters ?!

  2. btw, it just occured to me that our corporate culture of "chatting around the water cooler" comes from a long standing tradition of our ancestors in meeting their important "partners" in life at the very same spot!

    Though, beware, water supply can also significantly damage your [leadership] career. :-)

    good Shabbos.

  3. Leo-
    The answer to your question can be found in the Rambam and the Ramchal. They both write that in bringing up kids it is sometimes necessary to express anger. However, this is not permission to be angry - just to act as if you are to make your point to the child. This is what they write and I believe it answers your question. Like G-d, we are occasionally called upon to act as if we are angry without actually being angry inside. Easier said than done!