10-1-2012 “Tell me frankly, I appeal to you—answer me: Imagine that..........
“Tell me frankly, I appeal to you—answer me: Imagine that it is you yourself who are erecting the edifice of human destiny with the aim of making men happy in the end, of giving them peace and contentment at last, but that to do that it is absolutely necessary, and indeed quite inevitable, to torture to death only one tiny creature, the little girl who beat her breast with her little fist, and to found the edifice on her unavenged tears—would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me and do not lie!”
Ivan Karamazov, in The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
A new teacher was trying to make use of her psychology courses. She started her class by saying, “Everyone who thinks he’s stupid, stand up!”
After a few seconds, little Johnny stood up. The teacher was surprised, but realized this was an opportune moment to help a child.
“Do you think you’re stupid, Johnny?” she asked.
“No, ma’am,” Johnny replied, “but I hated to see you standing there all by yourself!”
Moses Asks for G‑d’s Name
This week’s Torah portion tells the tragic tale of a people suffering for decades under a cruel and brutal empire. Jewish male newborns are cast into the Nile; Jewish men and women are subjected to slave labor, beaten and tortured mercilessly. Jewish life has become valueless.
“A long time passed, and the Egyptian king died,” states the Bible. “The Jewish people groaned because of their subjugation, and they cried out.”1 The Midrashic tradition explains this verse to mean that the Egyptian leader became afflicted with leprosy, comparable to death, and his physicians said to him that his only cure was to slaughter Hebrew children—150 in the morning and 150 in the evening—and bathe in their blood twice a day.2 The pain of the Jewish people reached an unbearable mass.
It was at this point that “their outcry went up to G‑d; G‑d heard their moaning.”3 In the remote Sinai wilderness, G‑d persuades Moses to leave his isolated and introverted life as a shepherd, to enter the lion’s den and liberate his broken people from bondage.
In a uniquely powerful dialogue between Moses and the Almighty, Moses says to G‑d: “Behold, I will come to the children of Israel and say to them, ‘The G‑d of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they will say, ‘What is his name?’—What shall I say to them?”
“‘I Will Be As I Will Be!’ replies G‑d to Moses. ‘Tell the children of Israel, ‘I Will Be sent me to you.’”4
G‑d’s in Exile
This seems like a senseless reply. Moses asks G‑d for His name, and the response is: “I will be as I will be!” What is the meaning behind these curious words?
The great biblical commentator,Rashi,5 based on the Talmudic tradition,6 fills in the missing words: “I will be [with you in your present distress, just] as I will be [with you in future exiles and persecutions].”
But this, too, leaves us wanting. Moses asked G‑d for a name, for a means of identification, which he can then communicate to the Jewish people. In response, G‑d presents a verb rather than a proper noun, an activity rather than a description.
A Strange Question
To appreciate G‑d’s response, we must first understand Moses’ question.
Moses says to G‑d: “Behold, I will come to the children of Israel and say to them, ‘The G‑d of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they will say, ‘What is his name?’—What shall I say to them?”
Maimonides, in his Guide For The Perplexed, raises a question.7 Why was Moses convinced that the Jewish people would want to know the name of the G‑d who sent him on the mission to liberate them from slavery? It would seem that by Moses demonstrating knowledge of G‑d’s name, he would somehow authenticate his claim as the divine messenger to redeem the Hebrews from Egypt. But why? If they had heard of G‑d’s name prior to Moses’ coming, it is easy to assume that Moses learned the name from the same source as they, and not necessarily from G‑d. If they had never heard the name before, why would the new name they learned from Moses persuade them to trust in him?
Moreover, Moses prefaces his question by saying, “Behold, I will come to the children of Israel and say to them, ‘The G‑d of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they will say, ‘What is his name?’” Moses will be discussing with them the G‑d of their fathers, a G‑d they learned about from their fathers. Did their fathers never share with them the name of this G‑d? How did their fathers speak about this G‑d or pray to Him without some sort of name and description?
The Question of Questions
When Moses says, “Behold, I will come to the children of Israel and say to them, ‘The G‑d of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they will say, ‘What is his name?’—What shall I say to them?”, he is not searching for G‑d’s ID tag or His title. Moses is addressing the heart-wrenching question of questions, one that will certainly be mouthed by the Hebrews to whom he is being sent.
“What is His name?” the Jewish slaves will cry to Moses. For more than eight decades8 we have been suffocating under the yoke of brutal tyranny. Thousands upon thousands of our children have been slaughtered so that Pharaoh can bathe daily in Jewish blood; infants have been robbed from the bosoms of their mothers and cast in the river; we have been beaten, humiliated, tortured, killed. The Egyptians turned our lives into a hellish nightmare and reduced our dignity to sub-humanness. Suddenly, the great and mighty G‑d of heaven and earth, who creates and governs the entire world, decided to feel our pain?
“What is His name?” the slaves will thunder. You, Moses, say that G‑d has “seen the suffering of His people in Egypt,”9 and has therefore sent you to redeem us. But where was He until now? What is the name, the character, of a G‑d who can sit in the heavens and remain apathetic as babies are torn from their mothers’ arms and cast into the Nile, and Pharaoh is bathing in the blood of Jewish children? Where was He for the 86 years we have been languishing under the slave-drivers’ whips being beaten to death? Is this the G‑d we ought to embrace and follow? Is this the G‑d we should trust? Is this a G‑d we ought now be grateful toward? A G‑d who is indifferent to the tears and groans of mankind?
Never in history did G‑d answer this question, the greatest of all questions and perhaps the strongest argument for atheism. The book of Job, dedicated to the question of why the innocent suffer, concludes with a revelation of G‑d to Job, telling him, in essence, that there is no way the human mind can create the logical constructs in which G‑d’s behavior can fit. The finite and the infinite just don’t meet.
G‑d does not give Moses the answer either. That is why at the end of this week’s Parshah,10Moses confronts G‑d, speaking to Him harsh words: “My L‑rd! Why have you done evil to this people? Why have you sent me? From the time I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he did evil to this people, but You did not rescue Your people!”
What G‑d does tell Moses to communicate to the Jewish people is: “I Will Be As I Will Be!” As we recall, the Talmudic sages and Rashi explain this to mean, “I will be with you in your present distress, just as I will be with you in future exiles and persecutions.” What is the message behind these words?
I am a mystery, G‑d confesses. I am strange, infinitely strange. My script of history is quite unfathomable to the human mind and heart. Yet you ought to know one thing: I am not a detached G‑d, residing in the heavens and objectively governing the destiny of each human being the way I see fit. I am present with you in your anguish. I am in the groan of a beaten slave, the wail of a bereaved mother, the spilled blood of a murdered child. You are crying? I am weeping with you. You feel crushed? I am crushed with you. No matter how deep your darkness, I am deeper still. I do not orchestrate human suffering from some distant planet, removed from your existential distress. I am there with you, suffering with you, sobbing with you, praying for redemption together with you.11
Man may never comprehend G‑d’s “mind.” But let him not think, G‑d tells Moses, that G‑d, who understands the purpose of the pain, gives Himself the luxury of not feeling the intensity of the darkness. Every tear we shed becomes His tear. He may not wipe them away, but He makes them His.12