The second portion of Sh’mot, the Book of Exodus, Va-eira, continues the very familiar story of the Exodus of the Israelites. The story is so familiar that it is easy to miss some important subtleties – one of which surfaces at the very beginning of the parashah (Exodus 6:2-3):
Then God [Elohim] spoke to Moses, and said to him: ‘I am YHVH [Adonai]. / I appeared
[Va-ei’ra] to Abraham, to Isaac and Jacob as God Almighty [El Shaddai], but (by) My Name, YHVH, I was not known to them.
The context is Moses’ continuing encounter with the Eternal One at the ‘burning bush’. At first sight, the declaration doesn’t make any sense – after all, if you go back to B’reishit, the Book of Genesis, you will find that ‘Adonai’ – the word substituted for the ineffable Name of God represented by the consonants Yud Hei Vav Hei (which indicate God’s ‘being-ness’) – spoke to the ancestors on several occasions. So, what does it mean to say, ‘but (by) My Name, YHVH, I was not known to them’?
Although YHVH spoke to the ancestors and made promises to them, they did not experience the fulfilment of God’s promises. The French medieval commentator, Rashi (Rabbi Sh’lomoh Yitzchaki, 1040-1105), writes: “‘But by My name I was not known to them’’: It is not stated, ‘I did not make known’ [lo hoda’ti], but ‘I was not known’ [lo noda’ti] – I was not known to them through My attribute of keeping faith, which is implied in My name YHVH: faithful to make true My words, since I made a promise and did not fulfil it.”
Is this all just semantics and rabbinic ‘hair-splitting’? No – because without interrogating the opening statement of Va-eira, we don’t just miss a subtlety, we fail to register how the encounter at the ‘burning bush’ sets the scene for everything that follows. Explaining the import of the powerful declaration, ‘I am YHVH’, Rashi writes: ‘Faithful to reward those who walk before Me. I did not send you for nothing, but to fulfil my words, which I spoke to the ancestors.’ And so, we read in the verses that follow (6:4-6):
I have established My covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their sojournings, wherein they sojourned. / And, also, I have heard the groaning of the Israelites, whom the Egyptians keep in bondage; and I have remembered My covenant. / Therefore say to the Israelites: I am YHVH, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and great judgements.