“Alas for Those Who Have Passed Away”
The first two verses of this week’s reading have long posed a problem for interpreters. God says to Moses, “I am the Lord.” (Here the Torah uses God’s holiest name, the one that is written with the Hebrew letters corresponding to Y-H-W-H.) “But when I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, it was as El Shaddai (‘God Almighty’)—I did not make Myself known by My (holiest) name, ‘the Lord.’”
But surely this is not so. God’s name “the Lord” (that is, Y-H-W-H) appears a great many times in the stories of Israel’s ancestors—not only as part of the background narrative, but actually spoken by those ancestors themselves. Thus Noah says, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem” (Gen 9:26). Abram says to the king of Sodom, “I hereby lift up my hand [the sign of making an oath] to the Lord, God Most High, maker of heaven and earth…” (Gen 14:22). Lot says to his sons-in-law, “Come on, get out of this place, because the Lord is about to destroy the city” (Gen 19:14). And so on, and so on. In all these verses, the English word “Lord” is a translation of that holiest name of God.
So what could God be saying? Considering this week’s opening verses, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 111a) comments curtly, “Alas for those who have passed away and are no longer with us.” What did that mean?
To answer both querstions, it is necessary to reckon with a surprising phenomenon elsewhere in the Torah. Often, God finishes an announcement with the words, “I am the Lord,” or “I am the Lord your God.” For example, in the book of Leviticus God tells Moses to say to the Israelites, “You will observe My statutes and keep My laws and follow them; I am the Lord your God. So you will keep My laws and My statutes which, if a person observes them, he will live by them; I am the Lord. None of you shall come near anyone of his own flesh to uncover nakedness; I am the Lord” (Lev 18:4-6).Why does God keep reminding Moses that it is God who is talking—is Moses really in danger of forgetting from one verse to the next?
A little later, some further examples of the same phenomenon appear: “Everyone shall respect his mother and father, and you shall observe my Sabbaths; I am the Lord your God. Do not go astray after idols, and do not make molten gods for yourselves; I am the Lord your God… You may not curse the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind; and you shall fear your God; I am the Lord” (Lev 19:3-4, 14). It should be clear that in all these examples, the phrase “I am the Lord” is actually a kind of oath or signature, as if He were saying: “I, the Lord, am true to my word.”
Now we can go back to the beginning of this week’s Torah portion—or rather, to the very end of last week’s. Last week’s reading ended with Moses worrying about Pharaoh’s new order forbidding straw to be given to the Israelites for the making of bricks, as had been done in the past:
Then Moses went back to the Lord and said, “O Lord, why are You harming this people? Why did You send me at all? Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak on Your behalf, he has only harmed this people—and You certainly haven’t saved Your people. Then the Lord said to Moses, “Soon enough you will see what I will do to Pharaoh: he will let them go with a mighty hand, and with a mighty hand he will cast them out of his country.”
That is where last week’s portion ended. Our rabbis understood that, in the brief space between the end of last week’s reading and the beginning of this week’s, Moses apparently reacted to God’s words… by saying nothing.
This is a rather common feature of dialogues reported in the Bible. In a normal conversation, first A speaks to B, then B answers. But sometimes, A speaks and B says nothing, causing A to speak again. Ancient listeners/readers understood that B was somehow dissatisfied with what A had said at first; B’s polite silence was a way of indicating this. (One classic example is God’s reaction to Moses’ repeated silences in Exod 33:18-23.)
In the case at hand, our Rabbis understood that Moses was indeed keeping silent. God had promised in the previous sentence (Exod 6:1) that Pharaoh would cast the Israelites out of Egypt, to which Moses answered by saying nothing. He was waiting for the sort of guarantee that God gives by signing His name, so to speak, after a law or a promise. Where is the “I am the Lord?” Moses must have wondered.
That is why, according to the Talmud, God must have been thinking: “Alas for those who have passed away and are no longer with us.” After all, God had made promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—promises that sometimes were put in doubt by subsequent events—yet these illustrious ancestors never doubted God’s words. More specifically, they never said, “Why aren’t You saying, ‘I am the Lord’?”
So God acceded to Moses’ demand in the first verse of this week’s reading, while at the same time scolding him. “I am the Lord,” God said, but at the same time He pointed out to Moses that Israel’s founding fathers never made such a demand. “But when I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, it was as El Shaddai (God Almighty)”—that is, I did not have to give any guarantee by identifying Myself to them with My special name, ‘the Lord.’ They simply trusted Me. Alas for those who have passed away and are no longer with us!