Torah Portion of the Week: Knowing God

Parashat Va’eira: With 'I am the Lord,' God presents himself to mortals and the world, identifying himself by name. It does not answer the question, 'What is God,' but it does answer the question, 'Who is God?'

A statue of Moses by Herman Vilhelm Bissen in Copenhagen.

If you read the weekly Torah portions in sequence, under the assumption that the beginning of one reading is the continuation of the previous one, you sometimes find yourself in a difficult situation.

“And God spoke unto Moses, and said unto him: ‘I am the Lord,’” we read in the opening verse of this week’s parasha, Va’eira (Exodus 6:2-9:35; in the Hebrew typically translated as “the Lord,” the text uses either the tetragrammaton, YHWH, or an abbreviation for it). Why does God present and identify himself by name, as if Moses does not know who he is? Why does Moses not remind God that he already asked Pharaoh to, “Let my people go” (Exod. 5, 1)? Why does Moses again claim that he has a speech problem? Why does Parashat Va’eira repeat, albeit with different phrasing, what was already described in Parashat Shemot?

Apparently, the divine revelations made to Moses in these two readings do not constitute two stages of one narrative, but two different narratives describing a single event (as in the two Creation narratives in Genesis): the first divine revelation to Moses, including disclosure of the divine name, and Moses’ appointment as God’s emissary. We should see God’s speech to Moses in this week’s reading as heralding the beginning of both the latter’s relationship with the Almighty and of the exodus from Egypt.

Unlike the rich dialogue in Parashat Shemot, God engages in a monologue in this week’s portion. In Va’eira, Moses does not ask about God’s name as he did in the earlier one (“Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them: The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me: What is his name? What shall I say unto them?” [Exod. 3:13]) – because God has already presented himself at the outset of their encounter thus: “And God spoke unto Moses, and said unto him: ‘I am the Lord.’”

God appoints Moses to tell the Israelites that their fate will soon change and that salvation is near. Although planned long before and anchored in God’s covenant with the patriarchs, that covenant is realized only in the face of the distress of Abraham’s descendants, whose plight reminds God of his commitment to them: “And moreover I have heard the groaning of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians keep in bondage; and I have remembered my covenant” (Exod. 6:5).

The speech that God commands Moses to deliver to his brothers and sisters describes what awaits them. God will free his people from bondage so they can settle in the land he promised to the patriarchs: “… and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments; and I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God; and ye shall know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. And I will bring you in unto the land, concerning which I lifted up my hand to give it to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; and I will give it you for a heritage: I am the Lord” (Exod. 6:6-8).

Centuries later, during another era of exile and bondage, God’s promise to redeem his people and bring them to the Promised Land again provides consolation. The four cups of wine at the Passover seder symbolize the actions described by four verbs, the “four terms of redemption” mentioned in God’s speech: “I will bring you out,” “I will deliver you,” “I will redeem you,” “I will take you.” To represent the fifth action, “I will bring you in,” we place a fifth cup on the seder table for Elijah the Prophet, whose arrival heralds the culmination of Israel’s redemption.

But God’s speech includes more than these five actions; a sixth cup is missing from the seder table. As God tells Israel through Moses, he has something additional lined up as part of his plan for his people – maybe the ultimate goal of the five other actions – to become Israel’s God: “… and I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God; and ye shall know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians” (Exod. 6:7).

The forgotten verb, “to be,” also refers to the Children of Israel: “I will be to you a God,” but unlike the five other ones, it indirectly refers to God’s actions vis-à-vis Israel, although to some extent, it describes the precise opposite: The fact that he is to be the Israelites’ God will be expressed in their actions – their knowledge of him: “I will be to you a God; and ye shall know that I am the Lord your God.”

In the seven verses depicting God’s revelation to Moses (Exod, 6:2-8), the phrase “I am the Lord” appears four times. These are the first words Moses hears when he is addressed by God, and the first words the Israelites hear in his name. They introduce the speech (verse 6), are repeated midway through it (7) and form part of its conclusion (8); one’s impression is that they also convey the ultimate goal of the speech.

Further evidence that knowing God is the main goal of the Exodus appears later in Parashat Va’eira, as God tells Moses: “And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart… But Pharaoh will not hearken unto you” (Exod. 7: 3-4). God will influence the Egyptian ruler’s mood, making him refuse to free Israel – whereupon God himself will free his people by signs and by wonders: “… and I will lay my hand upon Egypt, and bring forth my hosts, my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt, by great judgments” (Exod. 7:4). The objective of these events is: “And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord” (Exod. 7:5).

What does it mean, to know “that I am the Lord?” What is it that Israel and Egypt should know? Is this like knowledge of a fact – someone’s telephone number or address? Or is it really getting to know the Almighty, or perhaps to recognize him?

Elsewhere in the Bible, God himself expands the meaning of the phrase “I am the Lord.” For example, “I am the Lord who exercises mercy, justice, and righteousness, in the earth” (Jeremiah 9:23), “I the Lord am thy Savior, and thy Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob” (Isaiah 49:26), or, “I am Lord who sanctifies Israel” (Ezekiel 37:28). Addressing Moses in this week’s Torah portion, God says: “and ye shall know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.”

These expanded descriptions must not, however, replace the basic motto, “I am the Lord,” nor do they fully explain it. God is not just merciful and compassionate, not just a zealous avenger, not just omniscient – nor any combination of the above. Nor is there an intent to allude to his being supreme and mysterious, for such qualities only partially, and inadequately, define him.

With “I am the Lord,” God presents himself to mortals and the world, identifying himself by name. His name is not a definition: It does not answer the question, “What is God,” but it does answer the question, “Who is God?” God’s name cannot be reduced to his qualities or actions. One is asked not to comprehend the godliness of the Lord, but rather to stand before that godliness, and to confirm that, indeed, “I will be to you a God, and ye shall know that I am the Lord.” This is the entire Torah “on one foot”: The Lord’s role is to be God, and the rule of human beings is to know this.