The article below is from Rabbi Riskin’s book Shemot: Defining a Nation, part of his Torah Lights series of commentaries on the weekly parsha, published by Maggid and available for purchase here.

Parshat Vaera: What’s in a Name? – God’s Name

Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin is the Founder and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone

RSR Head Shot Gershon Ellinson credit

“And God spoke to Moses and said unto him, I am the Lord, and I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, as Almighty God [El Shaddai], but My name YHVH [Four-letter Name of God] I have not made known to them.” [Exodus 6:2–3]

What is the secret of Jewish eternity?

If medical opinion is beginning to maintain that one of the most important variables in achieving longevity is an optimistic outlook on life, one of the most unique and important messages that Judaism gave to the world is the optimistic notion of world redemption.

Our Western culture is formed by the Greco-Roman civilization and by what is generally known as the “Judeo-Christian” tradition. The Greeks saw the world and life in a cyclical pattern of endless repetition without purpose or end-game: the myth of Sisyphus who is doomed to take the boulder up and down the mountain endlessly; the tragedy of Oedipus who suffers the sins of his parents and whose children are doomed to repeat the very crimes committed by their forbears; Shakespeare’s “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow beats on this petty pace to the last syllable of recorded time” and “life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Judaism, on the other hand, teaches that world and history are linear rather than cyclical, progressing towards repair and redemption, the prophetic notion of eventual human perfection at a time when “nation will not lift up sword against nation and humanity will not learn war any more” (Is. 2:4). I would maintain that what has kept us going despite exile, persecution and pogrom is this fundamental belief that what we do counts and that eventually we will succeed in perfecting the world in the Kingship of God.

This revolutionary optimistic concept is built around the name of God revealed at the beginning of this Torah portion: “And God spoke to Moses, and said to him I am the Lord [YHVH]” (Ex. 6:2). The Bible goes on to say that our patriarchs only knew of the name “Almighty God” (El Shaddai), but this generation of Moses will be privileged to know the new name of God, the Lord (YHVH). And it is specifically within the context of this new revelation of the name that God confirms the establishment of the covenant, the entry of Israel the people into Israel the land, and the exodus from slavery and oppression to freedom and redemption.

What does this new revealed name have to do with redemption? In the previous Torah portion, we read of the dialogue between God and Moses that is the beginning of the explanation. The Almighty reveals Himself to Moses in a burning bush, and bestows upon him the mission of taking the Jews out of Egypt (Ex. 3:10). Moses asks for God’s name, which is another way of asking for a working definition of God which he could communicate to the Israelites. God said to Moses, “Ehyeh asher ehyeh” (Ex. 3:14), which is best translated, “I will be what I will be.” What kind of name is this? It seems to be vague, not at all defined, and very much open-ended. Moreover, the verb form around which this phrase is built is identical to the verb form of the newly revealed name of God, both of them coming from the verb to be (H Y H).

In order to complete the elements of our puzzle, we must invoke the very first commandment which God will give the newly formed Jewish people:

“This renewal of the moon shall be for you the beginning of the months…” [Exodus 12:1]

The Israelites are commanded to search the darkened sky for the new moon, the light which emerges each month from the blackened heavens devoid of light. The Zohar, in explaining the importance of the moon and our celebration of its renewal each month with Psalms of praise (Hallel), explains:

The Jewish nation is compared to the moon. Just as the moon wanes and seems to have completely disappeared into darkness only to be renewed and reborn, so will the Jewish people often appear to have been overwhelmed by the forces of darkness and evil only to reemerge as a nation reborn in a march towards redemption.

Thus did the Babylonian Talmud emerge from the destruction of the Second Temple and the reborn State of Israel emerge from the tragedy of the Holocaust. From this perspective, the message of the moon is a message of ultimate optimism. The Almighty God Himself guarantees not only survival but also salvation. The paradigm for the optimistic and life-affirming pattern of exile and redemption is our experience of slavery in and exodus out of Egypt – and the fundamental change in Egyptian society and world mentality wrought by that exodus.

And let us pay special attention to the words of this first commandment: “This renewal of the moon shall be for you the beginning of the months…” The Hebrew phrase “for you” seems superfluous. Its meaning, however, as explained by the sages of the Talmud, makes it central and pivotal to the world as the Bible sees it. Our God is not only the God of creation, El Shaddai, the God who set limits on each element as He set boundaries on the heavens and the earth, the sands and the seas, mineral, vegetable, animal and human life and activity; He is also the God of history, “who will be what He will be,” and who has a built- in plan for the world which includes its ultimate betterment and even perfection. And if creation was an act of One, events in history are the result of partnership between the divine and human beings, God, Israel and world. Hence in the marking of the renewal of the month, which is really the marking of historical time, the Lord clearly tells His people that time is in their hands to do with what they will. If indeed how many months we may have depends on many factors aside from ourselves, what we do with the time at our disposal depends mostly on us.

Hence, when God asks Moses to be His agent, the first divine name He reveals to him is “I will be what I will be”; since I am the God of history, and I am asking you to be My partner in history, My ultimate design for the world will depend not only on Me but also on you. Yes, it will be within the context of the promises of redemption made to the patriarchs (Ex. 3:15). But when that will happen depends on you as well as on Me. No wonder this name of God is indecisive.

And this is the meaning of the newly revealed name which God gives to the generation of the Exodus: YHVH, literally, “He will bring about.” This name reflects optimism because the redemption is after all guaranteed by God. The light will definitely someday emerge from the darkness, but exactly when cannot be revealed. That depends upon us. And although the uncertainty contains an element of frustration and even despair, as evidenced in the question that we Jews so often ask each other, “So what will be?”, it also contains the seed of our salvation. After all, if God didn’t think that we were capable, He would never have made us His partner in the first place!

*             *             *

A Story Postscript

It was a few summers before my aliya, when my family and I were spending time at Kibbutz Ein Tzurim. The father of one of the kibbutzniks had died and his funeral was to take place in Kfar Hassidim near Haifa. A group from the kibbutz made the trip there and a large congregation assembled in front of the large yeshiva of Kfar Hassidim, from where the funeral was to begin.

In actuality, two distinct communities had formed, the men from the kibbutz in shorts and sandals, and the men from the yeshiva in white shirts and long black pants, shoes and socks. Then, the rosh yeshiva appeared, Reb Elya, a tall, bearded patriarchal figure in black hat and long black gabardine capote. He seemed to tower over the assemblage, and suddenly rested his eyes on Yehudah Neumann, my close friend from Kibbutz Ein Tzurim. “Yudke, Yudke, ilui [Talmudic prodigy], can that be you?” he cried out in Yiddish. “Yes, that was the name by which I was called at the yeshiva, Reb Elya,” responded my friend, turning red as a beet.

Apparently, my friend and Reb Elya had studied together many decades before at the yeshiva in Petah Tikvah, which had then been under the tutelage of Rav Shach, who later went on to head the Ponovez Yeshiva in Bnei Brak. “But you left the yeshiva, Yudke,” cried out Reb Elya, “and it must have been against the wishes of Rav Shach,” he continued in Yiddish. “Yes, I have many of Rav Shach’s letters urging me to stay,” responded my friend in Hebrew. “And these letters will comprise a wall of prosecution against you when you stand before God’s heavenly throne after one hundred and twenty years,” thundered Reb Elya in Yiddish. Everyone was silent; all eyes were on my embarrassed and humble friend, who surprisingly cried out in Hebrew, “And the wars which I fought and the kibbutz which I helped build for the State of Israel will act as my defense attorney, and I will win my case!” The kibbutzniks all smiled, and even the yeshiva students seemed impressed with my friend’s ardent comeback.

Reb Elya relaxed, and smiled. “You remained the same Yudke prodigy,” he said. “Kol hakavod [all honor to you].” “No, Reb Elya, I didn’t remain the same. I looked around at the changes in the world with the Holocaust and the emerging State of Israel, and attempted to respond to these changes. It is you who remained the same…”

The dialogue concluded, and the funeral began…

Shabbat Shalom


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