These days it seems more and more apparent that we live in a broken and imperfect world. With all of the crises in the Middle East, the ever-growing list of victims of preventable gun violence in our country, and, especially, this week’s terrorist activities in France, we are all left dumbfounded as to how so much evil could have been permitted to exist. An obvious question that people of faith are likely to be asking in the wake of all of this violence and hate is, “where is God in all of this?” And, of course, the corollary question is sure to be asked, “how could God let all of this happen?” While these are certainly valid questions, at this moment in time, we are not well served, nor are we comforted, by answering these questions directly. We can never know God’s true plans or absolute nature. We can only speak to humanity’s experience of, and relationship to, that which is divine.
As we seek to understand God in our own lives, we find infinite guidance through the written words and eternal teachings of our Torah. We begin the book of Exodus this Shabbat, reading about Moses’ first interaction with God. After approaching the Burning Bush and accepting God’s mission of freeing the Israelites from bondage in Egypt, Moses asks God one of the most pivotal questions in the Torah:
Moses said to God, "When I come to the Israelites and say to them 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is God’s name?' what shall I say to them?" And God said to Moses, "Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh." He continued, "Thus shall you say to the Israelites, 'Ehyeh sent me to you.’"
God’s response to Moses, the name Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, is one that comes with a variety of translations and, therefore, a variety of meanings. The common translation with which we are familiar is reflected in numerous editions of the Bible and even immortalized by Cecil B. deMille’s The Ten Commandments; “I AM THAT I AM.” The Midrash teaches us that the meaning of Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh comes to be found in the variety of names we use in reference to God:
R. Abba b. Mammel said: God said to Moses: ‘You wish to know My name. Well, I am called according to My deeds; sometimes I am called “El Shaddai (Almighty God)”, “Tz’vaot (Lord of Hosts)”, “Elohim (God)”, “Adonai (Lord)”. When I am judging created beings, I am called “ Elohim",’ and when I am waging war against the wicked, I am called “Tz’vaot". When I suspend judgment for a person's sins, I am called "El Shaddai,” and when I am merciful towards My world, I am called "Adonai", … Hence “I AM THAT I AM” in virtue of My deeds.’
(Exodus Rabbah 3:6)
According to this teaching, God’s essence is to be learned from God’s actions in the world, with each name referring to a different action or characteristic of God’s being. Therefore God is what God is, depending on how we as humans refer to God. If this is so, what are we then to learn, or, for that matter, teach about how the three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) relate to and address the same, One God. In light of recent events, and of the countless instances of radicals from all three religions acting “in God’s name,” one might draw a conclusion that referring to God by the name of Jesus, or Allah, or, heaven forbid, Adonai, might insinuate that God’s nature is evil, violent, and vengeful. Thankfully we know this not to be so and, as such, we know that as instructive as the above midrash is, God’s essence goes beyond mere absolutes; “I AM THAT I AM” is too rigid of a translation and too definite of an answer for a people whose eternal quest is to struggle with God’s being.
Another midrash, found in the Talmud, approaches Moses’ question from a different perspective: God’s surprise that the Israelites even needed to know God’s name.
Then the Holy One, blessed be God, said to him, ‘Alas for those who are gone and no more to be found! For how many times did I reveal Myself to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob by the name of El Shaddai, and they did not question my character, nor say to Me, What is Your name? I said to Abraham, Arise, walk through the land in the length of it, and in the width of it,’ for I will give it to you: yet when he sought a place to bury Sarah…had to purchase it for four hundred silver shekels; and still he did not question My character. I said to Isaac, Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you, and will bless you: yet his servants sought water to drink, and did not find it without its being disputed…still he did not question My character. I said to Jacob, The land on which you lie, to you will I give it, and to your descendants: yet he sought a place to pitch his tent and did not find one until he purchased it…nevertheless he did not question My character; nor did they say to me, What is God’s name?
This midrash teaches us that just as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob knew God personally, so too did God expect the Israelites, hundreds of years later, to accept God for the deeds of the past, not questioning God’s existence or, for that matter, which god was coming to their rescue. Instead, what God is faced with, and what Moses will come to lead, is an Israelite people who have not experienced God’s actions in the world. They had no personal interaction with the God of their ancestors. They are bound to ask for God’s name as proof of God’s identity, essentially questioning of God, “what haveYou done for me lately.” For the Israelites of Moses’ generation, God is not an absolute and “I AM THAT I AM” is not a convincing introduction.
Grammitcally speaking, “I AM THAT I AM” is a less-than-accurate translation of Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh. The word ehyeh is a verb conjugated in the imperfect aspect. This means that it reflects an uncompleted, ongoing action, that can exist either in the past, present, or future tense. As such, a more accurate translations would be “I WILL BE THAT WHICH I WILL BE,” “I AM BECOMING THAT WHICH I AM BECOMING,” or some combination of the two. By God’s own description, we can understand God as the divine entity whose nature is in a constant state of flux. God’s essence is fluid and determined by our experience of and relation to God; God’s becoming is determined by our doing. God is imperfect because we are imperfect.
Therefore, we must not look to God when trying to comprehend all of the evil and hate in our world. Instead we must look inward and ask ourselves: How can we help to bring perfection to the world? What can we do to help God become the gracious and merciful being that God strives to be?
Rabbi Haim Korsia, the chief rabbi of France, said in response to Wednesday’s attack “We must give hope to all of society. It is one of our jobs as Jews to give hope and be an or lagoyim, a light to the nations.” We are a light to the nations when we promote freedom for all races and faiths. We are a light to the nations when we engage in meaningful discussions with those who are different from ourselves. We are a light to the nations when we promote acceptance of others, not just tolerance.
Albert Einstein said, “Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.” We can come to understand God only by understanding each other. By celebrating our differences and by learning from our similarities we can come to understand each other. By embracing the all that is unique in the world, we can help to save the world. To take poetic license from a reading in our prayerbooks by Edmund Fleg:
We are Jews because for Israel, God is not perfect; we are perfecting God.
We are Jews because for Israel, the world is not perfect; we are perfecting the world.