Parashat Sh'mot

Exodus 1:1–6:1

January 9, 2010 / 23 Tevet 5770

This commentary was written by Rabbi Marc Wolf, vice chancellor and chief development officer, JTS.

The conclusion of Genesis and the beginning of the book of Exodus coincide this year with not only the end of a secular year, but the winding down of a decade. Of all its nicknames shopped around during the last days of December (the Ohs, Noughties, Aughts, or, as Slate Magazine put it, the Uh-Ohs), "the digital decade" is the one that I find most fitting. The past ten years have brought us blogging, Googling, YouTubing, tweeting on Twitter, and updating our Facebook statuses. Each progressive step (if we really want to call it progress) has brought new meaning to here and now. What these technologies have demonstrated is that we have a virtual obsession with being current—with letting people know exactly what we are thinking, doing, or experiencing.

At first, the obsession was casual. We blogged about our lives and posted videos on YouTube, highlighting the trivial and the sublime. We reacted to news stories, ranted about airline service, waxed philosophical about politics, and inspired an audience of millions-and in some cases there actually were millions in the audience. Who didn't enjoy watching the hit counter exponentially escalating on the video of "Jill and Kevin's Wedding Entrance" (currently at over 38 million views and definitely not an example of the sublime) or feel provoked to act by "The Girl Effect" as it landed in inboxes and on blog posts? We have been amused, moved, enraged, and entertained as we demonstrated with our comments in online forums.

But our fixation didn't end there.

As we moved through the decade, we discovered that blogging was too demanding for people with day jobs, so Facebook blossomed and our "friends" found out who we were, what we liked, and how many friends we had in common. We filled the space between blogging and Facebook by tweeting constant notifications of every twist and turn in our daily lives.

What has ultimately emerged as the years and technology progressed over this digital decade is our complete and utter infatuation with the present. We are driven to update, to tweet, to post, to capture this moment. Now. The present.

Interestingly enough, as much as Jewish institutions have benefited from the technological advances of this past decade (you may be hearing this as a JTS podcast), Judaism itself sees the present not as something we can capture at any given moment, but rather as elusive, or better yet, impossible to articulate.

This week, Moses encounters God for the first time after fleeing the oppression and injustice he witnesses at the hand of the Egyptians. Tending the flock of his father-in-law, Moses guides his sheep deep into the wilderness where he experiences a revelation of God in the Burning Bush. He comes to learn that this God of his ancestors has recognized that it is time to redeem the people and bring them to their destined land. When Moses questions whether he is fitting for the task presented to him, God reassures him, insisting that the Divine Presence will be with him (Exod. 3:1–12).

While Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob experienced God in a similar formulaic manner, Moses's experience differs significantly in the verses that follow.

Moses said to God, "When I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is His name?' what shall I say to them?" And God said to Moses, "Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh." He continued, "Thus shall you say to the Israelites, 'Ehyeh sent me to you'" (Exod. 3:13–15a).

Moses comes to know God by a completely different name that is unique to his experience. But what is it about this particular appellation? The Torah and rabbinic literature are replete with names for God, but Moses alone comes to know God as Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh.

Rabbi Alan Lew, (z"l), understands this moment as teaching us more about Moses than God. It is Moses's consciousness that defines his relationship with God. His presence of mind at the burning bush inspires his understanding of and relationship to God:

Eventually, Moses will ask God God's name, and God will reply, Eyeh chasher eyeh, "I Am That I Am," or "I Will Be What I Will Be" (the tense is not clear), and then later, simply Yud Hey Vov Hey, the verb "to be" in the present tense. The name of God is the only way to express present-tense being in the Hebrew language; you cannot say, "I am tall," you can only say, "I tall." Only God can be the absolute present tense; humans can only approach this state. Even when we are present, mindful, flush with our experience, there is still a synapse of milliseconds between the experience itself and the time it takes our nervous system to process it. (One God Clapping, 260)

Moses is truly in this moment. That is why he comes to know God as "The Present." He is, as Buber would suggest, in an "I and Thou" relationship with God. Present in the present, so to speak. As Rabbi Lew puts it (his passing last year left us wanting more instructing on living this teaching), "we are never really in our experience, just watching a movie of what happened several milliseconds ago, but the closer we get to being present, the closer we get to God."

Our challenge for the coming decade is to redefine the present not as a time period, but a state of mind, and devote more of our time to updating our mindset rather than our Facebook status.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.