Each week we feature a different outstanding Florida Rabbi.
Rabbi David H. Auerbach
Bet Shira Congregation
This Shabbat we begin reading the second of the Five Books of Moses, Shemot (Exodus). In the first two parshiyot (portions) there are important references to God's name. Names were significant in the ancient world because they were usually descriptive of the character or essence of a being.
In the first portion, which we read this week, God responds to Moses' query by telling him that His name is EHYEH ASHER EHYEH. In the next week's portion, God reveals Himself as YHVH (yud, hey, vav, hey) indicating that this name (or its meaning) was not recognized by the patriarchs.
What do these names mean? Are they two distinct names of God, or are they related?
Rashi, quoting the Talmudic tractate Berachot (9b), explains EHYEH ASHER EHYEH as "I will be with them in this trouble as I will be with them whenever they are oppressed." As for the significance of YHVH, he suggests it connotes the attribute of "God's faithfulness in fulfilling the promises for redemption that God made to the patriarchs but did not fulfill during their lifetime." Thus, it would appear, that Moses is being told about God's redemptive power. This fits the context since these revelations precede the redemption from Egypt.
But what is it about God that gives Him the power to redeem? How is Moses assured that his mission will ultimately succeed? How is this God different from all other gods?
EHYEH ASHER EHYEH is easy to translate but difficult to understand. Perhaps it is an idiomatic expression which means "I will continue to be." God is saying to Moses: "Everything in the world which you experience is temporary, limited, finite. It comes into existence, it grows and flourishes for a while, and then it deteriorates and dies. There are no exceptions. I, however, am different. I am without beginning and without end. I wasn't born and I will never die. I continually exist. My power never diminishes. Thus I am able to bring to pass anything and everything I choose."
God, therefore, is eternally existent. He is the cause of all other things or beings that exist for a limited time. He is always there. Contrast this with those who were considered as gods in the ancient world. They were not without beginning and without end; they were not unlimited in their power; they were not constantly available. They were the figments of human imagination and were thus limited by human imagination.
YHVH, the consonants of God's name, are all of the letters used in the various forms of the Hebrew verb "to be:" hayah, hoveh, yh'yeh. This too connotes continuous existence. In French translations of the Torah, YHVH is rendered as "L'Eternel," the Eternal one.
Thus, the Shema becomes a most profound and meaningful statement. Properly translated it says: "Understand, Israel, that our God is continually existent and this eternally existent God is unique" (understanding "echad" not only as a quantitative statement, but as a qualitative statement).
Because God is, we are. Because God caused and created, we exist. Because God is with us, our lives and struggles have meaning. What a powerful lesson not only for Moses' time, but for our time as well.