Bar-Ilan University

The Faculty of Jewish Studies

The Office of the Campus Rabbi


Daf Parashat Hashavua

(Study Sheet on the Weekly Torah Portion)

Basic Jewish Studies Unit


Daf Shvui No. 115

Parashat Va'era

And By My Name, The Lord, I did not Make Myself Known To Them (Exodus 6,3)

Professor Yosef Faur

Department of Talmud

In a section of "The Book Megillat Starim" (published by Poznanski in Hatzofe L'chochmat Yisrael, 25, 1921, pages 177-179), Rav Nissim Gaon (990-1062) develops the principle that (in contrast to the general concept of "divinity", which is attainable through rational thought) the concept of G-d is known only in the "consciousness of feeling" (translation from the Arabic original "alam eltz(r)orýi", the exact meaning of which is: intuition). The people of Israel achieved this supreme knowledge because they stood together:

"... At Mount Sinai and heard "I am the Lord your G-d" from the Almighty himself. From that day on they knew G-d intuitively; having seen the sounds pressing through the cloud and the fog, it seemed to them to be the actual form of the letters and their shapes written in the air in the order of the words."

Thus they realized by intuition "that the Holy One Blessed Be He himself spoke to them". The uniqueness of the Children of Israel stems from the fact that they were fortunate to get to know of "The Creator and His own attributes through intuition". Thus they are the witnesses testifying before all mankind as to the sublime existence of G-d: "they testify that the Lord exists, alive and present in the world, since they learned this fact intuitively". From this exact standpoint Israel alone are capable of being the witnesses - in the sense that the Arabic word "shahid" (believer) refers to one who gives a testimony of faith before others as to what he feels internally. In the light of this Rav Nissim Gaon explained the passage in Isaiah (43,12) "And you are My witnesses, says G-d" in the plain sense of the words. To this height only the People of Israel can ascend: "... The Holy One Blessed Be He made his people Israel unique in knowing Him intuitively... Therefore they deserved the title - witnesses". This is the intent of the prophet Amos (3,2): "Only you have I known from among all the families of the earth". This is to say : "I have made you unique to know Me ... through intuition". After discussing the various scriptural references and problems which apply to this principle , he concludes:

"And it becomes clear from all these Biblical verses and the proofs for the arguments I have brought that all the prophets who heard the words of the Lord, and all Israel, from the day they stood at Mount Sinai and heard "I am ..." and "You shall not have..." from the mouth of G-d, already knew the Lord clearly through intuition".

Accordingly Rabbi Yehuda Halevi (1075-1141) made a sharp distinction between belief in the Lord and belief in god in general. Belief in the Lord has two major characteristics: it cannot be attained through any logical process, through rational means, but only in "that prophetic vision"; and it belongs exclusively to the People of Israel. Belief in the Lord generates an existential transformation in the believer. In the words of Rabbi Yehuda Halevi: "G-d gave him another heart...it is thus that man becomes a servant, loving the object of his servitude and willing to sacrifice his life for the one he loves...". Thus the belief in the G-d of Abraham is different from that of Aristotle (The Kuzari, part 4, 15-16). One may, therefore, differentiate between the belief in the Oneness of G-d in Israel and the monotheism which exists among certain classes of the pagan peoples .

The historian of religion Paul Radin ( 1887-1959) in the ninth chapter of his classic work "Primitive Religion" (New York, 1957), proved that what is usually called monotheism among pagan peoples is not a religious principle but a philosophical one: "We are here not dealing essentially with a religious belief at all but with a philosophical concept". Monotheism among such peoples does not operate in their spiritual lives but is "an artificial and static synthesis" in the hands of a limited group of religious leaders. If it is at all legitimate to call this idea monotheism, claims Radin, "it would be just as legitimate to call Socrates or Seneca a monotheist. Monotheism in its strictly religious connotation implies that it is the official faith of the whole community. Such a faith is never found among primitive people". In this light one can well understand the promise of G-d that the Covenant at Sinai had two purposes (which are, in fact, one). First of all, it was intended to make Israel "a Kingdom of priests" (Exodus 19,6) meaning that unlike the pagan nations this knowledge is not the exclusive property of some kind of elite group, but is the heritage of the entire nation. The second purpose is that this knowledge comes to create a substantial change in the people. This is stated in the the continuation of the passage: "and a Holy People" - this is not simply an intellectual concept, but a belief, which transforms the Children of Israel into a Holy People.

In Exodus 5,22 we hear Moses complain that Pharaoh has rejected his request. Not only did he not free Israel but actually he worsened their condition. The answer to Moses' complaint is found further on (6, 2-7) when G-d announces the process of phenomena and events in nature which will transform Israel into a people who know G-d intuitively. Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno (1470-1550) pointed out that the letter "bet" in the word "be-El Shaddai" relates also to the word "Ushmi" (see Ibn Ezra and Shadal) and therefore the meaning of the passage is: "And by My name, the Lord, I did not make myself known to them: in that revelation. And I did not change any law of nature for them". G-d did not announce His ways to our Forefathers through miraculous changes in nature , but in prophetic visions.

A similar view was held by Rabbi Yitzchak Karo (16th - 17th centuries), the uncle and teacher of Rabbi Sforno in his commentary to the Torah (Toldot Yitzchak). He draws a basic distinction between the miracles done in the time of the Patriarchs - in the name of G-d as "El Shaddai" - which are by nature "hidden miracles", and those done for Israel in Egypt, which were "visible miracles". The purpose of the miracles done by Moses in Egypt was not to convince Pharaoh but to initiate a complex chain of events which would reach their climax at the foot of Mount Sinai. At that point Israel would come to know G-d through "the knowledge of feeling". In this light we should understand the letter-conjunction "vav" in the word "V'yada'atem ki ani ..."(And you will know that I am the Lord , your G-d) (Exodus 6,7) as being causative. The passage then, means: Through these miracles you will finally come to know the Lord in the knowledge of feelings. The continuation "who freed you from the sufferings of Egypt" refers to the first passage in tTen Commandments: "I am the Lord your G-d who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage"(Exodus 20,2).

We must point out that according to Maimonides only: "the signs done by Moses in the wilderness - were done out of necessity" (Yesodey Hatorah 8:1). Not so the miracles performed in Egypt, whose purpose, in the words of Rabbi Yehudah Halevi, was to transform each individual in Israel into "a servant loving the object of his servitude and willing to sacrifice his life for the one whom he loves". (For details on the subject and sources see: Josef Faur, "Intuitive Knowledge of G-d in Medieval Jewish Theology", Jewish Quarterly Review 67 (1976-77),( 90-110).

Translated by: Phil Lerman, Kibbutz Beerot Yitzchak