This week’s Torah portion starts off with a bit of an odd declaration that God makes to Moshe. God basically introduces Himself by saying, “I am God/Ado’nai. I appeared to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov as El-Sha’dai but My name of Ado’nai I did not make known to them.”
Now this is strange because we have seen numerous times in the Book of Genesis/Bereshit when that particular name for God is indeed used with the forefathers. It would seem that they were quite familiar with the Ado’nai reference to God.
Noting this, Rashi tells us that God is focusing on a certain aspect of Himself that is only now becoming apparent with Moshe and the Redemption from Egypt. And that is, “Trustworthy to pay the proper reward to those who walk before Me.” Rashi then amplifies this point by giving a few examples of how this particular name of God is associated with reward and punishment.
When God dealt with the forefathers it was in a limited capacity. While they received repeated promises of progeny – “I will make you as numerous as the stars of the sky” – and promises of a homeland in Canaan, they in fact did not see the fruition of those promises during their lifetime. These were promises that Avraham and company didn’t witness first hand. And let’s face it, a pledge to do something, even from God, is nice but really is nothing more than that until it is realized.
And this is what it means that the forefathers and foremothers saw only a limited slice of God. They were informed of promises from God, which is nice in its own right, but not the full expression of these promises through their fulfillment. That is only going to happen now in Moshe’s lifetime when the Israelites will be redeemed from Egypt and taken to The Promised Land.
God’s claim of “Trustworthy to pay the proper reward to those who walk before Me” is inextricably related to the larger notion of Reward and Punishment, as Rashi notes by the examples he lists, for that is essentially what it is saying – that God will reward those close to Him. But it’s not so simple.
Any person who has seriously thought about God has one major problem with Him: How do we reconcile a perfect, all-knowing, good God and injustice? “Why bad things happen to good people” is the most oft-asked theological question since time immemorial. A complete book of the Tanach is devoted to it in the Book of Job. Jewish tradition has so many different opinions as to when Job lived or whether he was Jewish or not, testifying to the universality of this issue and that it is relevant in all times and places, and arises in the hearts and minds of anyone who believes in God, no matter their religion.
It would be presumptuous of me to tackle this huge concern in a short essay but one thing is clear: If you think about it, the issue is not about pain or loss for each and every one of us suffers this at some point in our life. Were we to have no pain whatsoever at all in our entire life, then it would be as meaningful as a chair. No pain, no gain, as the saying goes. No, the issue isn’t pain or suffering but the inability to understand if and what the purpose of that pain and loss is.
When there is a purpose, a higher good, a light at the end of the tunnel, we are perfectly ok with pain. If it’s an avenue to something that will make us greater, then we can live with it. The best illustration of this takes place in a labour room in a hospital. Women go through excruciating pain when giving birth, the sort that no man will ever experience. And yet, once that baby is in Mommy’s arms, the agonizing experience she had just moments ago is completely and immediately forgotten. It is pushed aside from the immense joy of the newborn she now cradles in her bosom. And not only is the pain forgotten, but it has been transformed and turned into gold, being part and parcel of the specialness of the child she now holds.
But when pain and loss occur in a vacuum, when we cannot fathom the meaning behind the cancer-stricken person wasting away, this is when we question God’s existence. When there seems to be no rhyme or reason, no cause and effect to the difficulties, we are left throwing our hands up in despair, confusion and uncertainty. “I am Ado’nai” – the fulfiller of promises that gives reason and meaning to our difficulties – seems not to be.
We get the greatest sense and awareness of God when justice is being done, when truth is being witnessed and when “reward is given to those who walk before Me” comes about in front of our very eyes in a readily clear manner. When our actions and God’s reactions go hand in hand, without delay, and reward and just recompense is experienced and understood, then we get a very strong sense of God in the world. “I am Ado’nai” rings very clear. But the opposite is also true when negativity visits our lives and we cannot see the correlation between the difficulty and its purpose.
Moshe was being told that now, hundreds of years after those lonely and confusing days when the Israelites were but a clan who experienced so many years of hardship and slavery as they grew to a nation in Egypt – that now it was time for a full and complete accounting and justice to take place. Moshe was about to witness a true and real sense of “I am Ado’nai” that would be made known to the Jewish nation, Egypt and all of Mankind. Something Avraham, Sarah, Yitzchak, Rivkah, Yaakov, Rachel and Leah never saw in their lifetimes.
Our lives – both individually and as a people – go through ebbs and flows, ups and downs. There are times when it all seems to make sense and there are times when none of it does. The key is to have the strength of faith and belief – often only possible through the support of loved ones, community and tradition – during those dark times to hold on, to keep going and never lose hope until Redemption arrives. Because for all of us, it does and it will.
“I am Ado’nai” is the Promise that it will.
And when you’re in doubt,
And when you’re in danger
Take a look all around
And I’ll be there
But if you wait around a while
I’ll make you fall for me
I promise you
I promise you
– When In Rome