Abarbanel on the Parsha

For the week ending 10 January 2015 / 19 Tevet 5775

Parshat Shmot

by Rabbi Pinchas Kasnett
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When G-d directs Moshe to return to Egypt and take the Children of Israel out of Egypt, the Torah records a puzzling dialogue between G-d and Moshe: “Moshe said to G-d, ‘Behold, when I come to the Children of Israel and say to them, ‘The G-d of your forefathers has sent me to you,’ and they say to me, ‘What is His name?’, what shall I say to them?” G-d answered Moshe, “I Shall Be As I Shall Be”. And He said, “So shall you say to the Children of Israel, ‘I Shall Be has sent me to you’.” Furthermore, G-d said to Moshe, “So shall you say to the Children of Israel, ‘G-d, the G-d of your forefathers, the G-d of Avraham, the G-d of Yitzchak and the G-d of Yaakov, has dispatched me to you. This is My name forever and this is My remembrance from generation to generation’.”

Abarbanel cites numerous difficulties with this passage. Why would the Children of Israel inquire as to G-d’s name? What is the meaning of G-d’s answer? Why does G-d modify his answer twice, first by shortening His name to ‘I Shall Be’ and then referring to Himself as ‘the G-d of your forefathers’? What is the difference between ‘My name’ and ‘My remembrance’ and between ‘forever’ and ’from generation to generation’?

Abarbanel answers that in those days it was common for those who called themselves prophets to prophesy on different levels. Some said they received their inspiration from the sun, moon or stars, and others said they received it by virtue of some unique higher intelligence. By asking “What is His name?” the people would be trying to ascertain the source and level of Moshe’s prophecy in order to determine whether or not he should be followed. G-d responds by telling Moshe that unlike the stars or human intelligence, His power is not dependent on anything else. Rather G-d Himself is the sole source of all existence. What G-d is saying is that ‘I Shall Be because I Shall Be.’ G-d alone can determine what is and what will be. Nothing else in existence can make this statement, as its existence depends on a chain of causation outside itself. All it can say is, “I will be according to outside causes.” Everything else can be a predictor of possibility, but not of certainty. Only G-d has that power. Moshe will tell them that he was sent by the First Cause, not by a later creation.

This explains why G-d only then says “I Shall Be has sent me to you.” He has already explained to Moshe why He is called ‘I Shall Be’. From this point on Moshe only has to refer to Him simply as ‘I Shall Be’, which defines His essence. Another way to explain the shortened form of G-d’s name is in terms of Moshe himself. In reality, it was Moshe who needed to know exactly who was sending him on this mission. He phrased his concern in terms of what the people would want to know due to his own modesty. Once Moshe understood clearly that his prophecy was from the Ultimate Source, he only had to refer to the simple name of G-d when he spoke to the people.

When Moshe continues with the third expression, “G-d, the G-d of your forefathers…” he anticipates that there will be those who cannot understand the deep philosophical and theological concepts underlying the nature of G-d’s existence. They can, however, relate to the historical reality of G-d’s personal and providential relationship with the forefathers. This also explains the verse, “This is My name forever and this is My remembrance from generation to generation.” The first part of the verse refers to the theological and philosophical understanding of G-d in terms of all existence. The Hebrew word for “forever” also means “world”. G-d brings everything into existence, He is the First Cause and He is outside the concept of causation. The second part of the verse refers to the fact that G-d is “remembered” from generation to generation through his providential relationship with the forefathers.

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