By Rabbi Gila Colman Ruskin
Even before we met, it would be relatively easy to find out who you are.
I could look at your social media, have your criminal record checked, find your photo on Google Images, find your high school yearbook online or hire a private detective.
But when a thornbush flamed before him without being consumed, Moses did not have that toolbox available.
When this faceless deity commanded Moses to go before Pharaoh and demand that the Israelite slaves be released, Moses justifiably quaked and asked: “Who are You?”
The voice revealed some facts from the Divine resume: God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob. And some professional goals: “I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians and to bring them out of that land to a good and spacious land.” And some strategic plans for the execution of this goal: “Come, therefore, I will send you to Pharaoh, and you shall free My people, the Israelites, from Egypt.”
After the first unsuccessful attempt, Moses returned to God and more forcefully queried: “Why did you send me? Who are You really? I need to know if we are to have this working relationship.”
At this point, God (Elohim) spoke to Moses and God (YHVH) said to him: “I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but I did not make myself known to them by My name.”
Biblical commentators understand these two names of God (Elohim and YHVH pronounced as Adonai) as a code for which aspect of God’s character is being activated and expressed in each particular instance.
A verse that identifies God as Elohim indicates that God is acting out of the attribute of justice in this instance.
A verse that identifies God as YHVH indicates that God is acting from the attribute of mercy in this instance.
This code could apply to any situation in the Torah.
Moses could then decode this opening verse of Parshat Va’era, “Now the cry of the Israelites has reached Me; moreover, I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them,” Exodus 6:2, as: “I, God, am responding to the current situation out of My attributes of both justice and mercy. Justice: I will bring plagues upon the Egyptians for oppressing the slaves, and Mercy: I will liberate these suffering slaves.”
We know the story: 10 plagues, Pharaoh released the slaves, they crossed the Red Sea and, after 40 days, the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai. Moses ascended and brought down the two tablets. When the Israelites worshipped the Golden Calf, God commands Moses to shatter the tablets. Moses pleads with God not to destroy the people.
Moses had thought that he understood how God operates. But this violent response at Mount Sinai shook him up.
So in Exodus 33, when God commands Moses to once again ascend Mount Sinai to get the second set of commandments, Moses demands: I need to know Who You are. I want to see You, and for us to meet face to face.
God responds, I cannot show you My face, but I will pass before you and reveal to you who I am:
“A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness. extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving sin” — Exodus 34:6.
Now Moses has been reassured that God is indeed going to act out of justice and mercy.
It’s just the right moment to exact a promise for the future: On all Yom Kippurs God will pledge to forgive the people for their transgressions.
“I will pardon you, as I have promised” — Numbers 14:20
Rabbi Gila Colman Ruskin is emerita of Temple Adas Shalom.