Asking God's Name*

Exodus 6

2 And God spake unto Moses, and said unto him, I am the Lord:

3 And I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, by the name of God Almighty, but by my name "The Lord" was I not known to them...

In connection with the opening words of our Parashah "And God spoke to Moses’"-- Rashi (basing himself on a midrashic tradition) offers the following interpretation:

He scolded him for speaking harshly, when he had said "Why have you treated this people so badly?"

According to this reading, the opening verses of this parashah are an angry response to Moses' complaints at the end of last weeks Torah reading.

If we are to accept this interpretation, then it is somewhat difficult to understand how it fits in with the words:

I am the Lord: And I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, by the name of God Almighty, but by my name "the Lord" was I not known to them.

Some Midrashim read this verse as if God were saying to Moses: In all their trials, Abraham Isaac and Jacob never bothered to ask me my name, as you insisted on doing when I first sent you on your mission.

Indeed, if we look at last weeks Torah reading, we see Moses there in a very early stage of his career, when he still had a lot to learn about how to be a prophet and a leader. We often tend to view him as someone who was born in a state of perfection, but it is possible to interpret his career as a prolonged process of learning. He did not get everything right the first time.

When God appeared to Moses in the burning bush, Moses insisted on receiving precise instructions about what to do for every eventuality: "What if the people don't believe me?"; "What if Pharaoh does not accept my demands?"; "But Lord, I have a stammer!... "; "What if they ask me what your name is?"

And the Almighty tried to answer each question, and provide him with guidance for each scenario.

When Moses asked "What is your name?" he was given the answer "Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh." I am what I am. This declaration has been widely understood as a profound mystical or metaphysical definition of Ultimate Being. However, it was interpreted by some commentators as an irritated retort: "I am whatever I am, and what difference does it make to you what I should be called?!"

At the end of Parashat Shemot, Moses has crossed a line of propriety in reprimanding his Creator, and God reminds him in the introductory verses of Parashat Va'era< that the patriarchs trusted in god completely and without question, and never thought to ask god what his name was.

Many of us know from our own experiences that there are certain types of personalities who seem to need explicit instructions for everything, and can never take independent initiatives or accept responsibility for their own decisions. Such people are not equipped to be moral agents or religious leaders.

The Torah itself often gives the deceptive impression that it is designed to cultivate precisely that kind of total dependency.

The great (and heretical) philosopher Spinoza understood that this was the real reason why Israel was given a law that sets down rules for every imaginable action that a person can perform. He said that this was the only way that Moses could hope to reign in the impulsiveness of a disobedient and stiff-necked people who had only recently been liberated from slavery. Wear them out with so many rules that they will lose the ability to think for themselves, and in that way you will stamp out all their rebellious urges. According to Spinoza, the Torah was designed to achieve the goal of extinguishing every spark of willfulness and individual freedom.

But for all his brilliance, Spinoza got it all wrong.

Nevertheless, it is true that there are many Jews who view their Judaism in exactly this way. They carry around (if only in their minds) a private Shulhan Arukh, and presume that it will release them from the responsibility of having to make decisions of their own. The illusion is that the answers to all questions can be found in some book or other.

These are the same sorts of people who often make rabbis' live miserable by insisting on constant halakhic guidance about which tie to wear, or which route to take to the office..."

Our sages send us an entirely different message about the workings of Torah laws. In a remarkable discussion in the Midrash, the question is posed: Why was the whole Oral Law--the rabbinic and talmudic tradition--not included in the written Torah that was given to Moses?

The answer, explain the rabbis, is that no physical book could possibly contain the infinite possibilities that arise in real day-to-day life. All that the Torah can do (and it is a great deal) is to instruct us in the basic principles, so that we ourselves can learn to apply them to the innumerable situations that confront us in the course of our lives.

But when we really get down to it, no actual situation is ever precisely the same as the ones that are dealt with in the sources, and we are required to exercise our intellectual and ethical discretion in choosing the best course.

This is the message that God was trying to teach Moses at this immature stage in his growth as a leader: Don't count on being able to turn to someone else --not even to the Torah, not even to God himself -- and expect to find a simple answer to all your dilemmas. If you are going to be a true leader and a religious personality, then you must know how to take the initiative and assume responsibility for your own decisions.

Later on in our Parashah we find an indication that Moshe has finally learned the lesson. Look carefully at his exchange with Pharaoh following the plague of the frogs.

Once Moses had agreed to remove the frogs from Egypt, it says:

And Moses and Aaron went out from Pharaoh: and Moses cried unto the Lord because of the frogs which he had brought against Pharaoh

Why did Moses cry out a this point? After all, he had just emerged triumphant over the mighty Pharaoh, and he should have been ecstatically happy. Why does he seem to be so distressed?

Some of the commentators understood Moses distress in terms of his preceding conversation with Pharaoh:

And Moses said unto Pharaoh, Glory over me: when shall I entreat for thee, and for thy servants, and for thy people, to destroy the frogs from thee and thy houses, that they may remain in the river only?
And he said, To morrow. And he said, Be it according to thy word: that thou mayest know that there is none like unto the Lord our God.

If we read this carefully, we see that it was Pharaoh who chose the time when he wanted the frogs to be removed; and Moses agreed to it.

Some of the commentators point out that by doing it this way, Moses was able to demonstrate conclusively that the plague was not just some sort of natural phenomenon, nor a magic trick that he had planned beforehand. Only God could arrange for the frogs to disappear at a time that was chosen by Pharaoh.

What is remarkable about this episode is that the Torah never tells us that Moses received instructions about the removal of the frogs, or that he consulted God about whether he would back him up on this promise.

The old Moses of last week's parashah would probably have told Pharaoh that he would have to clear it with his Boss, and he would get back to him later with the final answer.

But this time Moses has learned what it means to be a leader. God has authorized him to conduct the negotiations with Pharaoh; and Moshe is obligated to make some risky decisions because they seem like the appropriate thing to do in these particular circumstances.

If we read the story this way, then we can appreciate why, when Moses left Pharaoh's presence after guaranteeing a miracle that had never been explicitly promised to him, he suddenly felt so insecure, and was impelled to cry out to God, to beseech him to carry out what he had promised to Pharaoh.

And in the end, God confirmed that Moses had done the right thing by taking an initiative and speaking out on his own

And the Lord did according to the word of Moses; and the frogs died out.

This was God's assurance to Moses, and to us, that we are expected to take personal responsibility in our lives, that even when there is no rule-book to guide us and there is no teacher to ask, we should act as we think necessary--and not continually ask God what his name is.


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My e-mail address is elsegal@ucalgary.ca


*Sermon delivered at Congregation House of Jacob - Mikveh Israel, January 12 2002.