This week, we have shifted from the first to the second book in the Five Books of Moses, or our Written Torah. We have left Bereshit, Genesis and are now in the book of Shemot, or Exodus. We have also shifted from the stories of our Avot and Imahot, our patriarchs and matriarchs, – Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov, Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah – into the story where the two main protagonists are God and Moses. We will follow these two “actors” throughout the rest of Torah.
In Shemot, Moses meets God for the first time. In a fascinating tension of introduction, Moses asks first, “Who am I,” Mianokhi – as a prelude to the idea of, “Who am I – that I should go to Pharaoh?” Such a question hangs in the air, in self-doubt perhaps, but maybe even of fear. Moses, left Egypt after killing an Egyptian overseer, and even growing up in the Egyptian palace may not save him from such an act.
Later Moses asks of God, “Who are You?” This question is asked, as Moses attempts to deflect God’s seconding of Moses. God waits Moses out, choosing him to go from being a shepherd in the hills of Midian to becoming a great teacher, Moshe Rabbeinu, leading the Children of Israel out of enslavement to freedom. Moses says to God that the Children of Israel will ask him who has sent him to them, “What is His Name” – they will ask. What is His Name? We too may ask the same question of God, Who we name by many names: Judge and Source, Rock and our Redeemer.
In Shemot, which more correctly is the Book of Names, and not Exodus as it has come to be known in English, such questions are significant. Last week we talked about ethical wills, about leaving a written legacy of values, ethics and ideals to our children, and our children’s children. What is our legacy? In order to leave a legacy we need to know who we are: how and why we are named and how we are to be remembered through that name.
God reveals a Name that is poetic and enigmatic, “I Shall Be What I Shall Be – or in just a few words later, “I Shall Be.” Ehey Asher Eheh. אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה. A Name that is pure breath in it’s very enunciation. A Name that reveals an essential ‘verb-ness – a process of a God that is always in a state of Becoming! In this Name God reveals our own capacity for our own be-coming. We grow into our own name-selves and in doing so, we too learn to live in our own becoming truth.
And just a little bit further in the text (3:13-15), God makes it even easier for the Children of Israel, by declaring that He is the “God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob” – a phrase we repeat in the Amidah prayer. “This is My Name forever and this is My remembrance from generation to generation.” God will be remembered in each generation and we will be remembered by God in each generation – we are in a Remembering-relationship with God and God is with us for all time.
We don’t generally think of God as a protagonist in a story – and yet, what is Torah but our story of our becoming a people, our becoming the people Israel, choosing to accept the quid-pro-quo that God offers us not just at Sinai, but throughout Torah. We will see this relationship be informed by an ‘if-then’ modality, a covenant which informs much of our Biblical relationship with God.
As modern people, many of us are skeptical about such a seemingly conditional relationship with God. How do we change and challenge the ‘if-then’formula of that early stage of our relationship, into a relationship that allows for more human agency in this world? Should we think of ourselves as agents who hold power in our own hands? Is this what the rabbis of Talmud teach in the oven of Ahknai?We will learn this story at our Shabbat service this week. Come and join us this Shabbat morning at the JCC at 10 am for a fascinating story about how a seemingly simple oven challenges our rabbis!