The Doubtful Path to God
Shemot Rabbah Va-era 6:4
וארא אל אברהם, אמר לו הקב”ה למשה חבל על דאבדין ולא משתכחין, הרבה פעמים נגליתי על אברהם יצחק ויעקב באל שדי ולא הודעתי להם כי שמי ה’ כשם שאמרתי לך ולא הרהרו אחר מדותי … ולא הרהר אחר מדותי ולא שאלני מה שמי כשם ששאלת אתה, ואתה תחלת שליחותי אמרת לי מה שמי
[“God spoke to Moses and said to him, ‘I am the Lord.] I appeared to Abraham, [Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make myself known to them by my name Adonai‘”] (Shemot 6:2–3). God said to Moses, ‘Woe for those who have been lost and are no longer among us, many times I revealed myself to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make myself known to them with my name Adonai, as I have done with you, because they did not ponder my essence . . . they didn’t ponder my essence and they did not ask my name as you have, and you, at the start of my mission for you, you asked me my name.'”
Parashat Va-era opens with a dejected and depressed Moses, crestfallen after an unfruitful encounter with Pharaoh. From the text it seems that Moses had expected the redemption of the Children of Israel to be a quick in-and-out operation, leading to his dismay when the full extent of his mission became clear. This first verse of the parashah, which our midrash builds upon, forms a kind of pep talk from God to Moses, with the Divine trying to reinvigorate and restore faith to God’s servant. According to our midrash, God lifts Moses’s spirits by noting his distinction from the patriarchs. While Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob knew God as El Shaddai, only with Moses did God reveal God’s self with the ineffable name that approaches the core of God’s essence.
But why was Moses deserving of such a powerful understanding of God’s nature, an understanding not achieved by previous prophets and pious ones? According to our midrash, it is because he asked. Unlike the patriarchs, Moses inquired after God’s nature; not satisfied with a passive reception of the Divine, Moses wanted to know more, to see God’s ways. Because Moses actively questioned the nature of God, because Moses asked, “Who are You?,” Moses was rewarded with an intimate knowledge of God’s nature, a knowledge that would sustain him through his long and arduous path leading the Children of Israel.
It is often the Abrahams, Isaacs, and Jacobs of the world who are pointed to as the paragons of the religious spirit—those bestowed with unwavering, unshakable, unquestioning faith. But our midrash suggests that those who possess the faith of the patriarchs have access only to an outer level of God’s nature. It is those who ask, who question, who doubt, like Moses returning from his first encounter with Pharaoh, who can begin to truly comprehend the nature of God’s name.