"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 Feodor Dostoyevsky
Two boys, great trouble makers who always got into trouble, were caught for stealing. Their mother sent them to talk to the town rabbi. So the two boys went to talk to the rabbi and he asked the younger child to come in first.
"Do you believe in G-d?" The rabbi asked the young boy.
"Yes," he responded.
"So do you know where G-d is?" the rabbi continued to ask. The young boy had a puzzled look on his face and said "nope." The rabbi said again, "do you know where G-d is?" The boy looked back and said "I already told you, no." The rabbi asked a last time with a louder voice, "do you know where G-d is?"
The boy ran out of the room to his older brother, sobbing. The older brother asked "What's wrong?" The young boy answered, "We are in big trouble now.G-d is missing and they think we've done it."
This week's portion (Shemos) 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 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 (1). "The Jewish people groaned because of their subjugation and they cried out." The Midrashic tradition (2) 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. The pain of the Jewish people reached an unbearable mass.
It was at this point that "their outcry went up to G-d; God heard their moaning (3)." In a remote location, in the 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 monologue between Moses and the Almighty, Moses says to G-d (4): "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.'"
G-d's Presence 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 the response of G-d, we must first understand Moses' question. Moses tells 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? Apparently, by Moses demonstrating knowledge of G-d's name, he would somehow vindicate himself as an genuine prophet; he would 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 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 I.D. tag or His title in Who's Who. Moses is addressing the heart-wrenching question of questions, one that will certainly be mouthed by the Hebrews he is being sent to.
"What is His name?" the Jewish slaves will cry to Moses. For more than 80 years (8), we have been suffocating under the yoke of brutal tyranny. Thousands upon thousands of our children have been slaughtered so that the king 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, decides 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 groans of mankind?
What is the "name" of a G-d who watches good people suffer and does nothing to prevent it? What type of G-d is this who can let evil flourish under Hid gaze? Should one beleive in such a G-d?
Never in history did G-d answer this question, the greatest of all questions and the one good 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 portion (10), Moses confronts G-d, speaking to Him harsh words: "My Lord! 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." The message behind these words is this:
I am a mystery, G-d confesses. I am strange, infinitely strange. My script of history is unfathomable to the human mind and heart. My silence seems so cruel. 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.
Does this ease the pain? I am not sure. But for many a Jew, it made a world of difference. If G-d was in the there, in the abyss, it meant that there was more to the story. There was dignity in the valley of tears.
(This essay is based on an address by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shabbos Shemos 5743, Jan. 8, 1983. When the Rebbe gave this address, he sobbed bitterly. My pen cannot describe the profound emotions that engulfed the audience as the Rebbe wept almost uncontrollably).
Footnotes:1) Exodus 2:23.
2) Midrash Rsabah Shemos 1:24; quoted in Rashi on verse.
3) Exodus ibid. 23-24.
4) Exodus 3:13-14.
5) To Exodus ibid.
6) Talmud, Berachot 9b.
7) Moreh Nevuchim 1:63. Maimonidies himself and many biblical commentators offer various answers to this question.
8) The subjugation of the Jewish people began prior to Moses' birth (see Exodus chapters 1-2). Moses was 80 years old when he first approached Pharaoh (Exodus 7:7).
9) Exodus 3:7.
10) Ibid. 5:22-23.
11) This truth was also communicated via the very location of this conversation between G-d and Moses, from amidst a thorn bush. "G-d revealed Himself to Moses in a thorn bush, and not some other tree, to emphasize that He is together with [Israel] in their affliction" (Rashi, Exodus 3:2). "Why from a thorn bush? To teach us that there is no place devoid of the divine presence" (Midrash Rabbah, Shemot 2:9). This idea is also expressed in Isaiah 63:9 and constitutes a major theme in the book of Psalms.
12) Published in Likkutei Sichos, vol. 26, pp. 10-25.