Whom Shall I Say Is Calling?

Moses asks God how he should describe the One who has promised to deliver the people from enslavement in Egypt.

God says ehyeh asher ehyeh. Conventionally, this is translated as I AM WHAT I AM or I SHALL BE WHAT I SHALL BE.

As difficult as these words are to understand, it is simply remarkable that we have them in the Bible.

What are we to make of them? Here are some of the many superb ways our sages explain the answer:

1. It means God is of the past, the present, and the future to come. God shall always be, and always be what tomorrow demands. (R. Yitzchak)

2. It means God will not be limited or put in a box by any created being.

3. It means God will be with the people no matter what – whether in their distress, their redemption, or, especially, in their service to the Divine.

4. It means God will be both in judgment and in mercy. Ehyeh teaches the unity of the two attributes. (Ramban)

5. It means God is to be called by the Divine’s deeds: Elohim, when judging creations; Tzevaos, when waging war against the wicked; El Shaddai, when suspending judgment for a person’s sins and withholding deserved punishment; and Hashem, when merciful, compassionate, and full of grace. (Midrash Rabbah)

At bottom, this account of God is all verb – exist, act, create, redeem, be with us, judge, love, support, show mercy, and will be and do what the Divine intends.

God is not a noun, and is thus incapable of objectification.

It is this verb force – ehyeh asher ehyeh – that reigns sovereign over the Pharaoh and all other created beings on the earth, irrespective of the extent of their seeming power.

A Meditation for the Day

Ramban, the great medieval Jewish sage, concludes his study of Genesis with a remarkable statement.

Reflecting on the characters in the book and the journeys they took, their pain and suffering as well as their growth and joys, and mostly on the presence and role of God in their and our lives, Ramban weaves together this prose from various pieces of sacred text:

“And to the Creator of all beginnings,
Him that rides the skies,
Many praises and myriads of thanksgivings.
By Him actions and causes are weighed;
He uncovers deep things and lofty opinions,
And brings the thoughts to light.
It is He who leads me in the path of righteousness,
In the midst of the path of justice,
Who vouchsafes benefits unto the undeserving.”

It is well worth our time before we move on to Sh’mot, the book we call Exodus, to spend a few moments letting our memories of our encounter with Genesis swirl in our hearts and minds as we read and ponder these words from Ramban.

The Most Complete Eloquence

Sir Walter Scott called Judah’s appeal to Joseph on behalf of Benjamin the most complete pattern of genuine natural eloquence.

What makes it so?

It is important to recognize that the eloquence starts even before the speech begins.

We read that Judah went up to him. But, to whom is “him”? Yes, Judah is about to approach Joseph, but some sages believe the text wants us to understand that Judah draws close first to himself.

Oblivious in early life to the needs of others and his own duties, Judah begins a process of transformation through his experience with Tamar. Among other things, he learns that another can be “more in the right than I.”

Through the trials imposed by the unrecognized Joseph, he begins to see in the captive brothers the image of the abandoned Joseph. He sees the way of, and decides no longer to be, the abandoning brother. In turning from his early ways, he approaches his transformed self, now ready to draw close and reconcile with Joseph. The complete pattern of eloquence begins before any words are spoken.

Going up to Joseph, Judah speaks straight to the heart of the matter. He feels and expresses the pain of their father at the possible loss of Benjamin, his seemingly only remaining son with Rachel.

The weak, “other” brother has been put in peril yet once again in the drama. But, now, however jealousy and hatred had driven them astray before, Judah is here to say on the brothers’ behalf, “we see, and we care.”

Having earlier pushed Joseph into being a slave, Judah now is prepared to make himself a slave in the place of Benjamin. And he’ll do whatever it takes to prevent the misery such a loss would cause their father.

The trial brings Judah right back to the very place on the path where he strayed. Now he speaks words of love and compassion instead of callousness and hostility. And now his eloquence extends to the most profound sort of act of lovingkindness.

This is what God wants most of us. This is what turns Joseph’s heart, and this is what touches and teaches us all so eloquently.