Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text – Shmot, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers
Parshat Shmot closes with Moshe standing in frustration before God, complaining that his return to Egypt has only resulted in increased misery for the Israelites. God responds with assurances that the Exodus is about to unfold.
As the conversation continues in Parshat Va’eira, God proclaims: “I am A-do-nai. And I appeared to Avraham, to Yitzchak and to Yaakov as E-l Shad-dai but through My name A-do-nai I did not make Myself known to them. And also, I established My covenant with them to give to them the land of Canaan, the land of their sojourning, in which they sojourned.”
God then informs Moshe that He has heard the cries of the Israelites and that He has remembered His covenant. He instructs Moshe to tell the Israelites that they will soon be fully redeemed.
Why does God suddenly digress, in the midst of His reassurances to Moshe, to discuss the quality of divine revelation to the patriarchs? Why would this information be of significance to Moshe at this critical moment?
What does God mean when He says that He was revealed to the patriarchs as E-l Shad-dai but not as A-do-nai?
Even on a factual level, God’s claim is problematic. The text repeatedly refers to God by the name A-do-nai during the narrative of the patriarchal era. On two occasions God directly says to the patriarchs “I am A-do-nai.”
How, then, could God assert that He was not known to the patriarchs by that name?
The rabbis maintain that, by contrasting the names E-l Shad-dai and A-donai, God references a qualitative distinction between two different aspects of His own being. Until now, God appeared to man only as E-l Shad-dai. The name A-do-nai was known to the patriarchs but the divine aspect which that name represents was not realized in their time. With the birth of the Jewish nation, however, all is about to change as E-l Shad-dai becomes A-do-nai.
The scholars, however, are not uniform in their understanding of the different aspects of God represented by these two titles.
An early Midrashic tradition maintains that the name E-l Shad-dai refers to God in His role as a “promise maker,” while the name A-do-nai refers to God in his role as a “promise keeper.”
God’s message to Moshe at this critical moment, says the Midrash, is far from benign: “Woe concerning those who are lost and are no longer to be found!” Where is your faith, Moshe? You fare poorly when compared to the patriarchs. How many promises did I make to them which remained unfulfilled? I commanded Avraham to walk the length and breadth of the land of Canaan for it would eventually be his. Upon Sara’s death, however, he was forced to buy a plot of land for her burial. I instructed Yitzchak to dwell in the land that would be his and his children’s. Yet he was forced to strive with those around him for water. I pledged to Yaakov that the land upon which he lay would be given to him and his children. Yet, he, too, did not own the land until he purchased a section from the sons of Chamor, the king of Shechem.
In spite of all these disappointments, the patriarchs never questioned My ways nor asked Me My name (inquired into the nature of My being). You, on the other hand, immediately asked Me My name at the burning bush and, now, with the first setback you experience, you doubt your mission. Your faith pales in comparison to the faith of those who came before you.
While accepting the Midrashic contention that the titles E-l Shad-dai and A-do-nai respectively refer to God in the roles of “promise maker” and “promise keeper,” Rashi maintains that the midrashically suggested rebuke of Moshe does not fit the flow of the text.
The Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson, following his grandfather’s lead, explains God’s message to Moshe as follows: Moshe, you are about to experience momentous events. I made numerous promises to the patriarchs which, nevertheless, remained unfulfilled in their time. Now you and the Israelites will experience the fulfillment of those very promises.
Other scholars offer alternative explanations for the distinction between the titles E-l Shad-dai and A-do-nai.
Both the Ibn Ezra and the Ramban maintain that these titles are used by God to reflect a change that is about to occur in the quality of His interface with the physical world. Throughout the patriarchal era, God, as E-l Shad-dai, worked His will within the laws of nature. Now, however, as A-do-nai, God will transcend the boundaries of natural law.
The Sforno carries this thought one step further by asserting that the name E-l Shad-dai refers to God as Creator of the universe, while the name A-do-nai refers to God as Sustainer of that creation.
God tells Moshe: Because I have not changed the course of creation until now, I have only been perceived as E-l Shad-dai, the Creator. Now, however, as I work the miracles of the Exodus and Revelation, all will know that I am A-do-nai, that I continuously sustain the world and can change the course of nature, at will. (See Bereishit: Bereishit 1, Approaches A for a fuller discussion
of this distinction.)
While the specific distinction between the titles E-l Shad-dai and A-do-nai is the subject of dispute, almost all major commentaries agree that the differing names for God reflect a phenomenon of partial revelation. Through the use of these titles, God reveals, in limited fashion, specific aspects of His being to man. This phenomenon of partial revelation is not unique, however, to the conversation between God and Moshe at the beginning of Parshat Va’eira. According to rabbinic tradition, various titles used for God throughout the Torah reflect different dimensions of His character.
The Midrash explicitly lists four biblical titles for God and explains the meaning conveyed by each:
The Holy One Blessed Be He said to Moshe: “You wish to know My name? I am called according to My acts…. When I judge My creations, I am called E-lo-him. When I wage war upon the wicked, I am called Tze-va-ot. When I examine the sins of man, I am called E-l Shad-dai. And when I show mercy upon My world; I am called A-do-nai.”
Other titles are used in our tradition, as well. We have already noted, for example, that the title HaMakom represents God when He is hidden and distant from man (see Bereishit: Bereishit 3, Approaches F).
The fundamental question, however, remains: Why are these partial revelations necessary in the first place? Why can’t the Torah consistently use one title to portray all aspects of God’s being in a unified fashion?
The most familiar example of this phenomenon of partial revelation can provide the clearest answer. As indicated by the Midrash, the title Ado- nai is used in the text to represent God’s attribute of mercy, while the title E-lo-him is used to convey God’s attribute of justice.
In our world, justice and mercy are, in their purest forms, mutually exclusive. One simply cannot be all-just and all-merciful at the same time. If you show mercy, you are, by definition, bending justice. If you are totally just, mercy has no place. For these concepts to coexist, each must sacrifice a bit of its purity.
This mutual exclusivity of mercy and justice in the human realm is codified, on a practical basis, in Jewish law. Commenting on the Torah’s statement “You shall not favor the poor and you shall not honor the great,” the rabbis proclaim that the application of law should be swayed neither by pity for the destitute nor by concern for the reputation of the wealthy. Elsewhere, the Mishna records the emphatic pronouncement of Rabbi Akiva: “We are not merciful in deciding the law!”
The rules are different, however, in the heavenly realm. Although we cannot comprehend how, God is all-just and all-merciful at the same time. These concepts coexist in the dominion of the divine without either losing any of its strength.
To convey the undiluted purity of the Godly attributes of justice and mercy, the Torah singles out one quality at a time, dependent upon circumstances. Only through this singularity can the Torah express the full force of each particular characteristic. To us, it appears as if God is acting solely through the attribute being mentioned.
In similar fashion, other divine attributes are singled out in the Torah through the use of God’s various names, each title allowing us to focus on one specific aspect of God’s being.
We are then challenged, however, to put the pieces together and gain a view, albeit distant, of the whole of God’s essence, to recognize that in the realm of the divine, conflicting forces combine without a weakening effect.
By using God’s names to reveal pieces of His essence in partial fashion, the Torah ironically underscores the complexity of the whole. In the final analysis, the glimpses of God provided to us by the Torah text only serve to heighten His mystery.
Points to Ponder
Two final points from two disparate realms:
A. Tantalizingly, the physical world at its most basic level may well mirror the mysterious nature of the divine.
In very rudimentary terms, the current scientific theory of quantum mechanics maintains that, at the subatomic level, classically accepted laws of the universe begin to erode because of the following phenomena:
1. Electrons, protons and neutrons act, in contradictory modes, as both particles and waves.
2. Particles must be viewed as existing in numerous locations at once because the accurate position and momentum of a moving particle cannot be simultaneously fully predicted.
3. External measurement of a particle suddenly causes that particle to act in predictable, one-dimensional fashion.
In this subatomic world which serves as the foundation for our own, we find coexisting contradictory forces, infinite potential, and a shift to predictable behavior upon external measurement. The very building blocks of creation, like God Himself, defy our rules yet become consonant with those rules when they enter our realm.
Is it possible that aspects of God’s mystery are built into the most elemental level of His creation?
Who knows what other divine secrets are woven into the fabric of the universe?
B. Through the phenomenon of partial revelation, God may be transmitting an ethical lesson as well.
Just as we are only able to glimpse pieces of God’s essence at any one time, so, too, we perceive much of human life piecemeal. Man, created in the image of God, is a complex and contradictory being, replete with deep currents coursing beneath the surface. We must be careful, therefore, not to make judgments and decisions about ourselves or others based on the partial information that we perceive.
In the personal sphere, life should be seen as a continual journey towards self-definition. Our true capabilities inevitably lie hidden from view, beyond the limitations that we often place upon ourselves. “This is who I am,” we defensively proclaim upon being challenged, when we really mean, I have no desire to test my limits or challenge the life compromises that I have made. Yet, only when we push past those limits can we truly approach our God-given potential.
Concerning others, our tradition urges us to be sparing and cautious in judgment, sensitive to the vast array of life variables that simply lie beyond our ken. Who knows what pressures may cause our neighbor to act in a specific way on any given occasion? When the rabbis emphatically state, “Do not judge your fellow until you have reached his place,” they are effectively prohibiting us from judging those around us at all. We can never truly “reach the place” of others. We should, therefore, never rush to judge them.
What we perceive concerning both God and man is not whole. Our actions and attitudes should reflect that fact.