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Parashat Shemot 5772 – 01/11/2012

Parashat Shemot

Submitted by
Robert Rabinoff

Ehyeh asher ehyeh / I will be what I will be (3:14)

Further they expounded [Shemot Rabbah 3:6] Rabbi Yitzchak says: HKB”H said to [Moshe]: Moshe! Tell them I am the One Who Was, and I am now the One, and I will be the One in the future. 

And Rambam says in Moreh Nevuchim that Ehyeh asher Ehyeh means “the Being that exists,” that is to say “Whose existence is a necessity.”

He told Moshe that he was being sent to them through the Midat haDin / Attribute of Strict Justice that is within the Midat haRachamim / Attribute of Mercy.  It teaches that He is atzilut from beginning to end, and the midat haDin is in the middle, for His Name is within Him.  (Ramban ad loc)


I commented last week that after 50 years of not understanding my Bar Mitzvah portion (Vayechi), I now don’t understand it on a much more profound level than originally.  The same is true in spades for this week’s portion.  The name of the Parashah, and of the whole book, is of course Shemot / Names.  Ostensibly this is because the book begins “And these are the names of the children of Israel who were coming to Egypt…”  In fact, however, considerable emphasis is given in the Parashah to Gd’s Names, so we should look at our tradition to see what it has to say about the different appellations given to Gd throughout Scripture.


In English, or any other modern language, the words and sounds are more or less arbitrary symbols that refer to the objects or concepts they express.  According to our Sages, this is not true of the Hebrew language.  Since Torah is written in Hebrew, and Torah is the blueprint of creation, there must be a relationship between the sounds and letters of Hebrew and their combinations, and the objects and/or ideas to which those combinations (words, phrases, sentences etc.) refer.  This is also true, on a much deeper level, about the different Names of Gd that are used in Torah.  Ultimately, of course, since Gd is infinite, no “Name,” however profound, can encapsulate or represent Gd’s essence.  What the different Names indicate are the modes of interaction Gd has with creation.


The Names that are used primarily throughout Torah are the Tetragrammaton (Y-K-V-K/HaShem – the Name par excellence) which is not pronounced, and which represents Gd’s Attribute of Mercy (midat haRachamim), and Elokim, usually translated “Gd” and which represents Gd’s Attribute of (Strict) Justice (midat haDin).  The latter Name is also associated with the laws of nature; the gematria (numerical value of the letters) of Elokim is the same as that for haTeva – nature.


In our Parashah we are introduced to another Name, which is not used anywhere else in Torah.  When Moshe asks Gd what he is to tell the Israelites when they ask Who sent him, Gd says “tell them Ehyeh asher Ehyeh sent you.”  That is, Gd is indicating that He is planning on interacting with Israel and Egypt using a different modality than the ones we have grown accustomed to.  This Name is generally translated “I will be what I will be.”  This indicates an infinite flexibility, an infinite range of possible behaviors for Gd.  As is clear from Ramban’s summary quoted above, various commentators from Talmudic times onward have different ways of approaching this Name, and in the 750 years or so since Ramban’s time various other approaches have been taken.


I would actually like to focus on Ramban’s own discussion of this Name.  He indicates that the Name reflects a combination of the two attributes given by Y-K-V-K and Elokim – the Attribute of Justice and the Attribute of Mercy.  More precisely, Ramban states that the Attribute of Justice is within the Attribute of Mercy.  His further elucidation is just as cryptic: He is atzilut from beginning to end, and the midat haDin is in the middle, for His Name is within Him.


I haven’t translated the word atzilut here.  If you look it up in a dictionary or go to a translation web site, it translates as nobility, but it is also has the sense of nearness: the Kabbalists posit a division of reality into 4 “worlds,” from most concrete to most subtle, and the one that is “closest” to Gd is called Atzilut.  What Ramban appears to be saying here is that this “nearness” to Gd is a continuum, and that nature, represented by the midat haDin is somehow “in the middle,” or embedded in some way in this continuum of infinity.  I think this may be a repetition in other words of the concept Ramban expresses just prior to this in the quoted passage: the midat haDin is within, perhaps embedded in some way in, the midat haRachamim.  Now the midat haRachamim is associated with the transcendental nature of Gd, which integrates all differences within itself, and the midat haDin is, as we mentioned above, associated with nature – the expressed aspect of creation.


Our Sages tell us that the process of creation “begins” with Gd Alone in His infinite, transcendental nature.  Gd then “contracts himself” (tzimtzum) as it were and radiates His light into the “space” that is created.  This radiation is the finite creation.  Since that creation is ultimately nothing other than Gd’s inner essence apparently made concrete, it constantly strives to re-integrate with its source.  I’ve been putting quote marks around a lot of words in the last two paragraphs in recognition of the fact that any finite conception that our finite minds can come up with, and that our finite language can express, will of necessity fall short – infinitely short – of the reality.  Ultimately there is no contraction, there is no space, there is no radiation, or movement of any kind.  There is just Gd, as we say at the end of every prayer service (in Aleinu): H” is Elokim, there is nothing else.


Now perhaps we can set up a correspondance between this description of creation, and the Name of Gd in our parashah, and Ramban’s descriptions of what this name represents.  We begin with Gd alone – Ehyeh, infinite potential, integrated, the midat haRachamim, the Name Y-K-V-K.  The contraction represents finite creation/ asher (that – i.e. a limitation of infinite potential into one possible configuration) / midat haDin = nature.  Finally we have the reintegration of the finite and infinite values to create a “bigger” infinity: Ehyeh (now inclusive of both the original Ehyeh and asher) / midat haDin embedded as it were in midat haRachamim / midat haDin embedded in atzilut, which is the continuum of pure existence.


When Ramban concludes that His Name is within Him I believe we can say that he is at once summing up this correspondance, and at the same time pointing to a level of perception where we can drop the quote marks and perceive the underlying reality directly.  We have said that Gd’s Names represent the modes in which Gd interacts with creation.  But this idea of Gd as separate from Creation and interacting with it is valid only from the level of the creation.  The deeper reality is that there is only the continuum of Gd’s Existence – His essential nature never changes, never “interacts” with anything.  Therefore His Name is within Him – He is all that ever was, all that is, and all that ever will be; the creation is within His nature, and His interaction with creation is simply Gd interacting with Himself.


Gd first told Moshe Rabbeinu to tell Israel “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh sent me.”  After a bit He simplifies the instruction: “Ehyeh sent me.”  Maybe the Israelites, sunk in slavery, first had to internalize the transcendental nature of Gd, and that Gd was in fact interacting with the world, and aware of their plight and ready to take action to alleviate it.  After their liberation He was able to give us a Torah with a larger vision that our Sages throughout the generations have elucidated for us.  Our mission as the people of Israel is to realize that vision as best we can in our daily lives, thereby fulfilling the very purpose of Gd’s creation.