Human Experiences of the Divine

Va'era By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Jan 8, 2005 / 5765 | Torah Commentary

Maimonides’ incomparable twelfth-century code of Jewish law opens with a resounding theological preamble, “The basic principle of all basic principles and the pillar of all sciences is to realize that there is a First Being who brought every existing thing into being” (Isadore Twersky, A Maimonides Reader, 43).

To underscore that affirmation, Maimonides has the first letter of the first four words spell God’s most personal name, the Tetragrammaton, which Jews no longer pronounce as written. Since the root meaning of that word is to be, God’s name conveys the fundamental tenet of Judaism, that God’s eternal presence is the source and guarantor of all that exists. And that is the name God reveals to Moses at the burning bush and again in another form at the beginning of our parashah. God’s indisputable and overwhelming existence is the soil from which Judaism springs.

Yet God remains inscrutable. Revelation in the Torah occurs time and again in a setting obscured by darkness, as Abraham Joshua Heschel never tires of reminding us.

With amazing consistency the Bible records that the theophanies witnessed by Moses occurred in a cloud. Again and again we hear that the Lord “called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud” (Exodus 24:16); that the Lord appeared and spoke to him “in the pillar of a cloud” (Numbers 12:4; Deuteronomy 12:5; Psalm 99:7).

We must neither willingly ignore nor abuse by allegorization these important terms. Whatever specific fact it may denote, it unequivocally conveys to the mind the fundamental truth that God was concealed even when He revealed, that even while his voice became manifest His essence remained hidden (Heschel, God in Search of Man, 193).

In the spirit of this theological modesty, the Rabbis took recourse in creating a profusion of divine names, more than seventy names, according to Arthur Marmorstein. Longing for God expressed itself in an endless number of cognomens. What we love most we shower with terms of endearment. Each name captures but one dimension of the human experience of the divine; together they constitute a stereoscope of countless lenses and extraordinary depth vision.

One of my favorites is the name Makom, meaning place. In flight from Esau, Jacob alights “upon a certain place “(Genesis 28:11), which the Rabbis take to be God, to express the astonishing idea that God is the locus of the world rather than the opposite, that the world is the locus of God. It is a name rife with paradox. On the one hand, in its abstractness it conforms elegantly to the lofty constraints of biblical monotheism. Our (expanding) universe is but a tiny corner of God’s own being. On the other, Makom makes this infinitely grand God accessible and near. No spot on earth is without God’s presence, for God by definition, pervades existence as we know it. The effect is to meet the needs of our mind as well as our heart: God is both transcendent and immanent. In our morning prayers, to cite another favorite of mine, we address God as “The Lord of Wonders” and append the apt description, “Who every single day graciously renews the work of creation.” The appellation is intended to sensitize us to the ordinary and recurring miracles that surround us and to which we so quickly grow immune. Again, it is Heschel who has taught us that without a sense of wonder or radical amazement, we will never be touched by God’s presence. To discover “The Lord of Wonders,” is the key to acquiring command of God’s other names.

Underlying this profusion of divine names is the insight that as humans, our nomenclature can do no more than depict God’s actions, that is, our experience of God and not anything resembling God’s essence. When Moses presses God, the midrash has God say: “You wish to know My name. It is by my actions that I am called. Sometimes I am called El Shaddai or Zevaot or Elohim or Adonai. When I sit in judgment on humanity, I am called Elohim. When I war against the wicked, I am calledZevaot (the head of an army). When I refrain from punishing someone on the spot for his or her sin, I am known as El Shaddai, [I am not quite sure why!] And when I treat my world with compassion, I am known as Adonai” (Exodus Rabba 3:6).

Strikingly, the midrash proves its theological case from the enigmatic phrase used by God in the original dialogue with Moses: “I will be what I will be” (Exodus 3:14). God is not the same in each and every instance. The very vagueness of the formulation with two verbs of being allows for a variety of intersections with God.

The midrash captures the essence of monotheism. If pagan religion raised to the level of deity an assorted number of disparate natural phenomena, hence a pantheon of gods, the Bible insists on a single grand deity who encompassed the diversity of nature and human experience within itself. Existence emanates from but one source of being, refracted into a brilliant spectrum of emotions by human consciousness.

Against this backdrop, we can savor the fact that our parashah uses three distinct names of God in the space of its first two verses: Elohim, Adonai and El Shaddai (Exodus 6:2-3). Given the meanings the Rabbis attributed to God’s names, the midrash construes an exchange fraught with deep tension. The name Elohim (God as judge) suggests a moment of divine impatience: God (Elohim) spoke to Moses. What triggered the rebuke was Moses’ preceding assault on God after his first setback: “O Lord, why did You bring harm on this people? Why did You select me?” (Exodus 5:22), a remark laden with disrespect and impudence. God laments the slippage in leadership.

What a pity that the patriarchs are gone! Several times did I appear to them in the guise of El Shaddai and it was sufficient. To Abraham I said: ‘Up, walk about the land, through its length and its breadth, for I give it to you’ (Genesis 13:17). And yet he found no place to bury Sarah until he bought a gravesite from Ephron for 400 shekels. Similarly with Isaac and Jacob and none of them ever questioned My word. In contrast, to you I revealed Myself as Adonai, and you turn on Me after the first bit of adversity. Accordingly, I shall redeem Israel with compassion (Adonai) but condemn you to die in trans-Jordan [Elohim with El Shaddai perhaps signifying the delay in punishment] (Genesis Rabba 6:4).

I don’t think for a moment that the midrash is forced. Mixing narrative with theology, it picks up a critical tone just beneath the surface meaning of the biblical text: adversity, like nothing else, tests the quality of our faith.

Shabbat shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Va’era are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld