This week's Torah portion (Shemot) tells the tragic tale of a people suffering for decades under a cruel and brutal empire. Jewish male newborns are cast into the Nile; Jewish men are subjected to slave labor, beaten and tortured mercilessly. Jewish life has become valueless.

"A long time passed, and the Egyptian king died," states the Bible. (Exodus 2:23) "The Jewish people groaned because of their subjugation and they cried out." The Midrashic tradition explains this verse to mean that the Egyptian leader became afflicted with leprosy, comparable to death, and his physicians said to him that his only cure was to slaughter Hebrew children — 150 in the morning and 150 in the evening - and bathe in their blood twice a day. (See Ex. 1:24, Rashi) The pain of the Jewish people reached an unbearable mass.
G‑d persuades Moses to leave his isolated and introverted life...
It was at this point that "their outcry went up to G‑d; God heard their moaning." (ibid.) In a remote location in the Sinai wilderness, G‑d persuades Moses to leave his isolated and introverted life as a shepherd to enter the lion's den and liberate his broken people from bondage.

A strange question

In a uniquely powerful monologue between Moses and the Almighty, Moses asks G‑d: "Behold, I will come to the children of Israel and say to them, 'The G‑d of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they will say, 'What is his name?' — What shall I say to them?" (Ex. 3:13-14)

"'I Will Be As I Will Be!' replies G‑d to Moses. 'Tell the children of Israel, 'I Will Be sent me to you.'"

This seems like a senseless reply. Moses asks G‑d for His name, and the response is: "I will be as I will be!" What is the meaning behind these curious words?

Rashi, the great biblical commentator, fills in the missing words based on Talmudic tradition: I will be [with you in your present distress, just] as I will be in subsequent exiles.

But this, too, leaves us wanting. Moses asked G‑d for a name, for a means of identification, which he can then communicate to the Jewish people. In response, G‑d presents a verb rather than a proper noun; an activity rather than a description.

To appreciate the response of G‑d, we must first understand Moses' question. Maimonides, in his "Guide for the Perplexed,"1 queries why Moses was convinced that the Jewish people would want to know the name of the G‑d who sent him on the mission to liberate them from slavery? Apparently, by Moses demonstrating knowledge of G‑d's name, he would somehow vindicate himself as a genuine prophet; he would authenticate his claim as the divine messenger to redeem the Hebrews from Egypt.
...why would the new name they learned from Moses persuade them to trust him?
But why? If they had heard of G‑d's name prior to Moses' coming, it is easy to assume that Moses learned the name from the same source as they, and not necessarily from G‑d. If they had never heard the name before, why would the new name they learned from Moses persuade them to trust him?

Moreover, Moses prefaces his question by saying, "Behold, I will come to the children of Israel and say to them, 'The G‑d of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they will say, 'What is his name?'" Moses will be discussing with them the G‑d of their fathers, a G‑d they learned about from their fathers. Did their fathers never share with them the name of this G‑d? How did their fathers speak about this G‑d, or pray to Him without some sort of name and description?

Question of questions

Moses is not searching for G‑d's I.D. tag or His title in Who's Who. Moses is addressing the heart-wrenching question of questions, one that will certainly be mouthed by the Hebrews he is being sent to.

"What is His name?" the Jewish slaves will cry to Moses. For more than 80 years,2 we have been suffocating under the yoke of brutal tyranny. Thousands upon thousands of our children have been slaughtered so that the king Pharaoh can bathe daily in Jewish blood; infants have been robbed from the bosoms of their mothers and cast in the river.

We have been beaten, humiliated, tortured, killed. The Egyptians turned our lives into a hellish nightmare and reduced our dignity to sub-humanness. Suddenly, the great and mighty G‑d of heaven and earth, who creates and governs the entire world, decides to feel our pain?!

"What is His name?" the slaves will thunder. You, Moses, say that G‑d has "seen the suffering of His people in Egypt" (Ex. 3:7) and has therefore sent you to redeem us. But where was He until now? What is the name, the character of a G‑d, who can sit in the heavens and remain apathetic as babies are torn from their mothers' arms and cast into the Nile, and Pharaoh is bathing in the blood of Jewish children? Where was He for the 86 years we have been languishing under the slave drivers' whips being beaten to death? Is this the G‑d we ought to embrace and follow? Is this the G‑d we should trust? Is this a G‑d we ought to be grateful towards now? A G‑d who is indifferent to the groans of mankind?
What is the "name" of a G‑d who watches good people suffer...?
What is the "name" of a G‑d who watches good people suffer and does nothing to prevent it? What type of G‑d is this who can let evil flourish under Hid gaze? Should one, can one, believe in such a G‑d?

The Valley of Tears

Never in history did G‑d answer this question, the greatest of all questions and the one strong argument for atheism. The book of Job, dedicated to the question of why the innocent suffer, concludes with a revelation of G‑d to Job, telling him, in essence, that there is no way the human mind can create the logical constructs in which G‑d's behavior can fit. The finite and the infinite just don't meet.

G‑d does not give Moses the answer either. That is why at the end of this week's portion, Moses confronts G‑d, speaking to Him harsh words: "My Lord! Why have you done evil to this people? Why have you sent me? From the time I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he did evil to this people, but You did not rescue Your people!" (Ex. 5:22-23)

What G‑d does tell Moses to communicate to the Jewish people is: "I Will Be As I Will Be!" As we recall, the Talmudic sages and Rashi explain this to mean, "I will be with you in your present distress, just as I will be with you in future exiles and persecutions." The message behind these words is this:

I am a mystery, G‑d confesses. I am strange, infinitely strange. My script of history is unfathomable to the human mind and heart. My silence seems so cruel and brutal. Yet you ought to know one thing: I am not a detached G‑d, residing in the heavens and objectively governing the destiny of each human being the way I see fit. I am present with you in your anguish. I am in the groan of a beaten slave, the wail of a bereaved mother, the spilled blood of a murdered child. You are crying? I am weeping with you. You feel crushed? I am crushed with you. No matter how deep your darkness, I am deeper still. I do not orchestrate human suffering from some distant planet, removed from your existential distress. I am there with you, suffering with you, sobbing with you, praying for redemption together with you.
Man may never comprehend G‑d's "mind." Man may never comprehend G‑d's "mind." But let him not think, G‑d tells Moses, that G‑d, who understands the purpose of the pain, gives Himself the luxury of not feeling the intensity of the darkness. Every tear we shed becomes His tear. He may not wipe them away, but He makes them His.

And if G‑d is present in the flame of suffering, there must be more to the story. There must be meaning in the absurdness of history, and dignity in the valley of tears.

[This essay is based on an address by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shabbat Shemot and 5743, Jan. 8, 1983 (Published in Likkutei Sichos, vol. 26, pp. 10-25). When the Rebbe gave this address, he sobbed bitterly and almost uncontrollably. Those of us present will never forget the Rebbe's heart wrenching weeping while describing the question of the Jews and the response of G‑d. It was moving beyond words. — YYJ]

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