Parshat Vaera: The God Who Acts in History
The Israelites were at their lowest ebb. They had been enslaved. A decree had been issued that every male child was to be killed. Moses had been sent to liberate them, but the first effect of his intervention was to make matters worse, not better. Their quota of brick-making remained unchanged, but now they also had to provide their own straw. Initially, they had believed Moses when he performed the signs God had given him and told them that God was about to rescue them. Now they turned against Moses and Aaron, accusing them:
May the Lord look upon you and judge you! You have made us a stench to Pharaoh and his officials and have put a sword in their hand to kill us. (Exodus 5:20–21)
At this point Moses — who had been so reluctant to take on the mission — turned to God in protest and anguish:
O Lord, why have You brought trouble upon this people? Is this why You sent me? Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has brought trouble upon this people, and You have not rescued Your people at all. (Exodus 5:22)
None of this, however, was accidental. The Torah is preparing the ground for one of its most monumental propositions: In the darkest night, Israel was about to have its greatest encounter with God. Hope was to be born at the very edge of the abyss of despair. There was nothing natural about this, nothing inevitable. No logic can give rise to hope; no law of history charts a path from slavery to redemption. The entire sequence of events was a prelude to the single most formative moment in the history of Israel: the intervention of God in history — the supreme Power intervening on behalf of the supremely powerless — not (as in every other culture) to endorse the status quo, but to overturn it.
God tells Moses: “I am Hashem, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as My own people, and I will be your God” (Ex. 6:6-7). The entire speech is fascinating, but what will concern us — as it has successive generations of interpreters — is what God tells Moses at the outset: “I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as God Almighty [E-l Shaddai], but by My name Hashem I was not known to them” (Ex. 6:3). A fundamental distinction is being made between the experience the patriarchs had of God, and the experience the Israelites were about to have. Something new, something unprecedented, was about to happen. What was it?
Clearly it had to do with the names by which God is known. The verse distinguishes between E-l Shaddai (“God Almighty”) and the four-letter name of God which, because of its sanctity, Jewish tradition refers to simply as Hashem — “the name” par excellence.
As the classic Jewish commentators point out, the verse must be read with great care. It does not say that the patriarchs “did not know” this name; nor does it say that God did not “make this name known” to them. The name Hashem appears no less than 165 times in the book of Genesis. God Himself uses the phrase “I am Hashem” to both Abraham (Genesis 15:7) and Jacob (28:13). What, then, is new about the revelation of God that was about to happen in the days of Moses that had never happened before?
The Sages give various explanations. A Midrash says that God is known as Elokim when He judges human beings, E-l Shaddai when He suspends judgment, and Hashem when He shows mercy. Judah Halevi in The Kuzari, and Ramban in his commentary, say that Hashem refers to God when He performs miracles that suspend the laws of nature. However, Rashi’s explanation is the simplest and most elegant:
It is not written here, “[My name, Hashem] I did not make known to them” but rather “[By the name, Hashem] I was not known to them” — meaning, I was not recognized by them in My attribute of “keeping faith,” by reason of which My name is “Hashem,” namely that I am faithful to fulfill My word, for I made promises to them but I did not fulfill them [during their lifetime].
The patriarchs had received promises from God. They would multiply and become a nation. They would inherit a land. Neither of these promises were realized in their lifetime. To the contrary, as Genesis reaches its close, the family of the patriarchs numbered a mere seventy souls. They had not yet acquired a land. They were in exile in Egypt. But now the fulfillment was about to begin.
Already in the first chapter of Exodus, we hear, for the first time, the phrase Am Bnei Yisrael, “the people of the children of Israel” (Ex. 1:9). Israel was no longer a family, but a people. Moses at the burning bush was told by God that He was about to bring the people to “a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex. 3:8). Hashem therefore means the God who acts in history to fulfill His promises.
This was something radically new — not just to Israel, but to humanity as a whole. Until then, God (or the gods) was known through nature. God was in the sun, the stars, the rain, the storm, the fertility of the fields, and the sequence of the seasons. The gods were nature personified. Never before had God intervened in history, to rescue a people from slavery and set them on the path to freedom. This was a revolution, at once political and intellectual.
To most humans at most times, there seems to be no meaning in history. We live, we die, and it is as if we had never been. The universe gives no sign of any interest in our existence. If that was so in ancient times, when people believed in the existence of gods, how much more so is it true today for the neo-Darwinians who see life as no more than the operation of “chance and necessity” (Jacques Monod) or “the blind watchmaker” (Richard Dawkins). Time seems to obliterate all meaning. Nothing lasts. Nothing endures.
In ancient Israel, by contrast, this did not occur. Judaism is humanity’s first glimpse of history as more than a mere succession of happenings — as nothing less than a drama of redemption in which the fate of a nation reflects its loyalty or otherwise to a covenant with God.
It is hard to recapture this turning point in the human imagination, just as it is hard for us to imagine what it was like for people first to encounter Copernicus’ discovery that the earth went around the sun. The ancients believed that nothing really changed. Time was, in Plato’s phrase, no more than the “moving image of eternity.” That was the certainty that gave people solace. The times may be out of joint, but eventually things will return to the way they were.
To think of history as an arena of change is terrifying as well. It means that what happened once may never happen again — that we are embarked on a journey with no assurance that we will ever return to where we began. It is what Milan Kundera meant by his phrase “the unbearable lightness of being.” Only profound faith — a new kind of faith, breaking with the entire world of ancient mythology — could give people the courage to set out on a journey to the unknown.
That is the meaning of Hashem: the God who intervenes in history. As Judah Halevi points out, the Ten Commandments begin not with the words “I am the Lord your God who created heaven and earth,” but “I am the Lord your God who brought you out from Egypt, from the house of slavery.” Elokim is God as we encounter Him in nature and creation, but Hashem is God as revealed in history, in the liberation of the Israelites from slavery and Egypt.
I find it moving that this is precisely what many non-Jewish observers have concluded. This, for example, is the verdict of the Russian thinker Nikolai Berdyaev:
I remember how the materialist interpretation of history, when I attempted in my youth to verify it by applying it to the destinies of peoples, broke down in the case of the Jews, where destiny seemed absolutely inexplicable from the materialistic standpoint. … Its survival is a mysterious and wonderful phenomenon demonstrating that the life of this people is governed by a special predetermination, transcending the processes of adaptation expounded by the materialistic interpretation of history. The survival of the Jews, their resistance to destruction, their endurance under absolutely peculiar conditions and the fateful role played by them in history: all these point to the particular and mysterious foundations of their destiny.
That is what God tells Moses is about to be revealed: Hashem, meaning God as He intervenes in the arena of time, “so that My name may be declared throughout the world” (Ex. 9:16). The script of history would bear the mark of a hand not human, but divine. And it began with these words: “Therefore say to the Israelites: I am Hashem, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians.”
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is the former chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. He currently serves as the Ingeborg and Ira Rennert Global Distinguished Professor at New York University.