Eternity in a Word

Va'era By :  Joel Alter Rabbi, Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid (Milwaukee, WI); Former Director of Admissions, The JTS Rabbinical School and H. L. Miller Cantorial School Posted On Jan 16, 2015 / 5775 | דבר אחר | A Different Perspective | Natural World

“God said to Moshe: I am YHVH. I was seen by Avraham, by Yitzhak, and by Ya’akov by the name El Shaddai, but by my name YHVH I was not known to them” (Exod. 6:2‒3).

God’s name YHVH is the verb “to be” with the past, present, and future tenses folded into the same conjugation: Eternity or Being in a single word.

Rashi teaches that the name El Shaddai was associated with God’s repeated promises about what would be in the future—promises repeatedly affirmed but never fulfilled in the forefathers’ lifetimes. In Exodus 6:3, God doesn’t say, “I never revealed to them my name YHVH.” Rather, that God was “not known to them” by the name YHVH. Here, “knowing” means experiencing.

God recognizes that as the ancestors never experienced God fulfilling God’s promises, it had been impossible to come to know God’s essential nature: the Eternal’s presence in which past promises about a great future are realized in present reality.

In our parashah, God tells Moshe that when the people are redeemed from slavery they will experience God’s promises fulfilled. They will come to know God’s essential nature, expressed in the name YHVH, in a way their ancestors never could.

When we behold a mountain, a river, the desert, the ocean, another summer’s growth, we perceive the constancy of nature. In this awareness many of us discern God’s eternal presence. We intuitively feel the majesty of the inherent stability in seasonal changes. Ultimately, nature seems an unchanging, ever-present vastness.

Our verse about God’s name teaches that, in the Exodus from Egypt, God’s eternal presence broke through the limitations of the present, carrying God’s past promises resoundingly forward into the present, as if the horizon folded back on itself. Perhaps this is what it means when the people walked on dry land in the midst of the sea (Exod. 14:29).

Redemption liberates us from the strictures of time, beholding God’s eternity as when standing beneath the vast sky or in the shadow of a great mountain or hearing the rush of waters that have flowed through their course since time immemorial. Redemption comes like an unexpected pebble that perfectly disturbs the placidity of the surface of a pond, sending ripples forth toward their encounter with the shore.

(photography by Rabbi Joel Alter and Michael Alter)