The opening scene of this week's Torah portion is remarkably surprising. God speaks to Moses (ok - that's not so surprising, as it is after all, the most common phrase in the Torah). But what God says is a bit surprising: "I am Adonai. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as El Shaddai (Almighty God), but I did not make myself known to them by my name Adonai." (Exodus 6:2-3)
Regarding Avraham, the verse says, "I am El Shaddai, walk before Me and be perfect...and I will increase you plentifully" (Genesis 17:1-2). With Jacob, the verse says, "And El Shaddai will bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you" (Genesis 28:3).
Only Moses, however, has met God as Adonai, for it is as Adonai that God introduces God's self to Moses. But, here is where the surprise comes in. Actually, as it turns out, according to the book of Genesis, God does indeed use this same declaration to both Abraham and Jacob, saying "I am Adonai." And, both patriarchs call out to God using this same name (the four letters that spell Adonai).
So, how are we to understand the opening of this week's Torah portion when it tells us that no one previously knew God through this name, Adonai? After all, if both these patriarchs were introduced to God as Adonai, why would the Torah say Moses is the first to meet God as Adonai?
The pre-eminent 11th century commentator, Rashi, posits that what is new is the name itself, but the specific attribute or characteristic of God that is associated with the name.
Rashi is not the first to consider the different names of God as unique manifestations of God's character. Midrash Rabbah, the comprehensive work of interpretation on the early books of the Torah, understand the various names of God as corresponding to different attributes of God and to the different manifestations of God experienced in the moment of the individual name. In fact, there are 70 different names of God, each referring to different faces of God. For example, God as judge is Elohim, while El Shaddai is usually used to refer to the God who forgives those who make mistakes. And, according to Rashi, the attribute associated with the name Adonai is that of a promise keeper. As such, Moses is now meeting God who is ready to keep the vows made to the patriarchs. The patriarchs may have heard this as his name, and had heard God's promise to redeem their descendants, but had not experienced God's fulfillment of those promises because it was not until this moment with Moses that the time came for our ancestors to realize the promise of the Land.
Rabbi Jacob Ben Asher, known as the Tur, offers another perspective. He points out that the verses in which God appears to the patriarchs as El Shaddai refer to God's promise to make them a great nation through the birth of many children. And, indeed the two verses above from Genesis, in which God is referred to as El Shaddai, both reference the pledge of progeny. But, he says, in the verses in which God becomes Adonai, those refer to the promise of the land.
God says to Abraham, "I am Adonai, who took you out of Ur Kasdim to give you this land as an inheritance" (Genesis 15:1). And to Jacob, God says, "I am Adonai ...the land upon which you are lying I will give to you and to your descendants" (Genesis 28:13). Both times that God says "I am Adonai," it is to guarantee that the land of Canaan will belong to their descendants.
So, perhaps the difference is not about what name of God was operable in any given generation, but about the specific promise that is experience through Adonai. Redemption through settlement in the land was set in motion with the patriarchs but brought to fulfillment through the work of Moses and the people of his generations and beyond. Certainly, the patriarchs were aware of the promise of the land as is evidenced in the verses above. But, they did not live at a time when that was the active fulfillment. Now, with Moses, God is ready to make that the primary occupation (even if it did take 40 years of wandering, the narrative is all about the journey towards the land).
I am struck by these commentators' close reading of the text. For each experience, for each promise, there is a different understanding of God, a unique experience of the Divine connection. And, it leaves me thinking about the unique ways in which I have experienced God in different moments of my life, and how apt it is to understand God's connection through different lens. So, in this week of Vaeira, which means 'I appear', I invite you to reflect on where God has appeared for you and which distinctive appearance of God has accompanied you through different moments in your life?
May we all come to know God as a keeper of promises, personal and collective.