Let It Be
In this week’s shiur I would to survey some of the opinions surrounding one of the more enigmatic verses in the Torah, rather than trying to present one idea. Please read the shiur as an attempt to appreciate the multifaceted approaches of the commentaries.
After Moshe concedes to take the role of leader, at the burning bush he turns to Hashem and asks him: “When I tell Am Yisrael that I spoke to you and they ask me for your name, how should I respond?” Hashem replies that his name is “Eheya Asher Eheya” which literally means I will be what I will be. Finally Moshe is told to tell them that Eheya has sent me.
The entire episode is puzzling on many accounts, why was Moshe checking God’s ID? How was this supposed to substantiate his credentials? What was the response of God? Is this actually His name? What is the meaning of the phrase? And why was Moshe given the shortened version to report to the people?
Virtually all of the commentaries have grappled with many of these issues. I would like to present some of them and try to arrange them so that they form a comprehensive view of the story. In addition I will try to point out some of the interesting points that can be learned from many of the unique approaches.
User Name and Password –
The Rambam, in his introduction to his commentary on the Mishna has a long discussion describing true and false prophets and how to distinguish between them. The first criteria he mentions is that a true prophet speaks only in God’s name. Based on this, our first prophet, Moshe, had to establish his “security clearance” before he could be accepted at all. While this may seem a bit superfluous the very inquiry may serve as the basis of this halacha.
Or HaChaim –
In this case the Or HaChaim is surprisingly straight forward and literal in his explanation (despite his usual tendencies toward more mystical approaches). He points out that in every other prophesy thus far in the Torah, Hashem always introduces himself in the opening statements (see Breishit 16:7, 17:1, 28:13, 35:11). Moshe was disturbed by the lack of “label” associated with the vision. He therefore questioned Hashem as to His name.
I think it is interesting to contrast this with the Ibn Ezra, who can generally be counted on for a very literal reading of the text, who, in this case, supplies us with a very mystical explanation of the passage.
The reading of the Or HaChaim of course solves a question raised by the Ramban. If the name of God was meant to be the password that would allow Moshe to be accepted by the nation then surely he must have known it as well. What was to provide the added level of authenticity by using the name of God that any imposter could not have provided? According to the Or HaChaim the name was not intended as a password, however if he had claimed to have had a revelation and yet failed to report it in the traditional manner (with a clear “self introduction” by God) it would have seemed that it was not genuine.
He is what He Does –
Chazal in the Midrash Breishit Rabba 3:6-
Chazal identified the question as referring to various attributes of God. Moshe was not looking to validate the prophecy in any way, rather he was trying to get a better picture of the nature of the mission that he was being sent on, with the assumption being that each and every name of God refers to a distinct manifestation of His presence in the world. The name Elohim refers to when he judges people, Tzvaot is for battle, etc. For each and every way in which we find God in the world there is a distinct title. Moshe’s question was: “How will the bondage in Egypt end, as a punishment to the Egyptians, a kindness with the Jews? Will it take place in a natural manner or in a miraculous one?”
So in one form or another Moshe was seeking validation of his vision. What was the response?
There are two basic schools of thought on the response to the question. The Baal HaTurim (and others in various forms) see the answer to be specific and precise. Hashem provided Moshe with an exact name to report back to the elders. However it is cryptically embedded in the words Eheya Asher Eheya (in the case of the Baal HaTurim it is a combination of the final letters of the words). This approach seems to be satisfying in the sense that a specific question was asked and it was answered, however it is difficult to see this in the simple reading of the text.
On the other side of the coin are those commentaries that understand the words in a more literal meaning, “I will be what I will be”, leaving us without a clear answer to the original query. What was meant by the phrase Eheya Asher Eheya?
The Ramban addresses the answer (it is important to note that he is using the approach of the Midrash that we mentioned earlier, that the question is a quest for the specific attribute of God responsible for the upcoming exodus). The answer was meant to be vague. Hashem’s answer was that He cannot be described by a specific name. He promises Moshe that He will guide and assist them in this crisis that they are going through and in all further trials and tribulations that they will encounter in varied and wide ranging ways. This, of course, was a critical message in a time of pagan attitude that assigned very specific roles and powers to individual gods. Hashem is a “One God Show”, which serves as a major theme throughout the Torah (one should keep this is mind when reading the first verse of the Aseret Hadibrot, where He introduces Himself as the one who “took you out of Egypt”, once again refuting the idea that one god was responsible for the exodus and yet another for the giving of the Torah).
I would like to close with the Malbiim who takes this idea a bit further. He explains that the vague term that serves as the response to the question is necessary on philosophical grounds. We are only able to refer to God in the most general of phrases because any elaboration is by definition limiting. This is demonstrated in the Gemara in Brachot (33b) that records that a certain individual began the Amidah with an elaborate description of God. Rabbi Chanina turned to him and asked cynically “is that all you have to say?” The gemara explains that any attempt on our part to describe God would be presumptuous and even insulting, as anything that we can list will seem to be exhaustive while by definition it cannot be. (In practical terms we only describe God by those terms used in the Torah by Moshe Rabenu, as if to say “we cannot express this idea but instead we’re ‘with him’- Moshe”).
There is an entire “iceberg” and I have only revealed one ninth of it. I hope that the above discussion will spark a learning of the parsha at your Shabbat table and will produce many more insights and approaches to this interesting episode.