G-d spoke to Moses, and He said to him, “I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob with [the name] Almighty G-d, but [with] My name YHWH, I did not become known to them. [Exodus. 6:2-3]
Here’s the scene: Moses was assigned by G-d to tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. Instead, the Egyptian emperor intensifies the punishment of the Jews. The Jewish leadership throws Moses out of Egypt and tells him never to come back. He’s simply a troublemaker, a member of the angry Levite tribe, cursed by Jacob.
Moses glosses over the criticism. What he can’t take is the oppression of the people. “Why have You harmed this people?” Moses asks G-d. They are poor and oppressed, the lowest on the totem pole. And yet they still believe. But that belief has been betrayed by Pharaoh’s latest decrees and my failure to stop the king’s brutality.
Why have You sent me? Since I have come to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has harmed this people, and You have not saved Your people.” [Exodus. 5:22-23]
G-d’s answer is simple. First, Moses, you have to know who I am. I am Hashem. Your forefathers did not know Me as Hashem. They knew me as El Shadai, Hebrew for “Almighty G-d.” And the difference between Hashem and Almighty G-d is the key to understanding the significance of Moses.
Shlomo Yitzhaki, or Rashi, explains El Shadai in the Torah portion Lech Lecha. El means mighty, but that is modified by Shadai. The 11th Century sage asserts that the actual word is an amalgamation of Sheh Dai, “that is enough. “I am He Whose G-dliness suffices for every creature,” Rashi, quoting the Midrash, writes. “Therefore, walk before Me, and I will be your G-d and protector.”
In our Torah portion Vaera, Rashi’s chief interpreter, the Sifsei Chachamim, or the “Lips of the Wise,” elaborates. El Shadai was a divine term reserved for the patriarchs. G-d was telling Abraham and later Issac and Jacob that they could count on Him to reward the good and punish the wicked. But that reward was based on the patriarchs fulfilling G-d’s will. Indeed, G-d would test Abraham alone 10 times, and each time the patriarch passed. As the Chinese launderer replied when asked for a shirt by an empty-handed customer: “No ticki, no washi.”
G-d did not use the term El Shadai with Moses. Instead, He said “I am Hashem.” The Sifsei Chachamim said the reference to Hashem, one of seven names used for the Almighty, meant that there would no condition for G-d’s salvation. He would keep His promise to the Israelites regardless of their fidelity. The only thing the Jews had to do was believe.
Sometimes, that’s all a Jew can do. Yehezkiel Abramsky grew up a scholar near Vilna in the late 19th Century and like millions of others suffered under the decrees of the Russian czar. When the Bolsheviks took over in 1917, there was no letup in the persecution. The communists outlawed Torah study, ritual circumcision, Sabbath and even Jewish marriages. But this time, Lenin had tens of thousands of Jews willing to do his work. The young rabbi went underground to help Jews and avoid the authorities.
On the eve of Rosh Hashanah 1930, the secret police caught up with the rabbi in Moscow. He was accused of treason and the prosecutor demanded the death sentence. With the help of pressure from abroad, the sentence was commuted to five years of hard labor in Siberia. For many, that amounted to a slow death. Rabbi Abramsky was bereft of warm clothes; the work regimen was brutal, and the inmates became the playthings of the sadist guards. Every day, the rabbi and his colleagues were forced to run in the snow barefoot. Most collapsed within days. Moreover, he was given no opportunity to study Torah or keep the commandments. He was as depressed as the Israelites in Egypt.
But Rabbi Abramsky remembered his prayers, particularly the Modeh Ani, “I Thank You,” the first thing a Jew says when he wakes up. He failed to understand what there was to thank G-d about as he faced another day of hell in the gulag. “What kindness is there in mercifully restoring my soul if I cannot worship You properly?” he asked.
Then the rabbi recalled the end of the same prayer “Their faithfulness is great.” Now, he understood the reason G-d was deserving of gratitude: He was providing the Jew with an additional day of faith, a gift worth all of the hardship.
A year later, Rabbi Abramsky was released. He would become a spiritual leader and halachist in London and Jerusalem. His escape from Siberia marked the mystery of G-d’s salvation. The rabbi had been part of an exchange that included six communists imprisoned in Germany, a deal engineered by Chancellor Heinrich Bruning, not known as a friend of the Jews. Later, the rabbi’s children would be freed through the intervention of British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden, an architect of the White Paper, employed by London to stop the Jews from escaping Hitler and reaching the Land of Israel during World War II. In Egypt, the liberation of the Jews came about through Pharaoh, who for years plotted to destroy the people.
G-d’s name “Hashem” reflects His relationship with the Jewish people. Rabbi Chaim Ibn Atar, known as the Or Hachayim, says Hashem shows mercy to His people under all circumstances. He cannot see them suffer. Their stay in Egypt was meant to last 400 years, but Hashem could not stand the cries of the oppressed. He made a decision: Regardless of the original deadline, the Exile must end — now. That is why He chose Moses as the divine messenger to liberate the Israelites before their time. Like G-d, Moses could not watch another day of suffering.
The divine decision for freedom came without strings attached. It stemmed from a loving father, straight from Hashem.