I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai [Almighty God], but I did not make Myself known to them by My name YHWH [Ineffable Being] (Exodus 6:3).
Clearly we cannot take this verse literally. God certainly does announce the name YHWH to Moses’ ancestors, saying directly to Abraham, “I am YHWH” (Genesis 15:7).
Our medieval commentators believe the words present a theological guideline. We cannot know the Godhead directly, they teach, but only by means of particular manifestations of the divine — particular to time, place, person and situation. Abraham and Sarah saw Almighty God; Moses, half a millennium and a whole cultural milieu away, saw Ineffable Being.
But the specific God-experiences here seem wrongly attributed, backwards in fact. Abraham and Sarah, we are told in Genesis, experienced the subtle divine presence in everything. Daily, they walked and talked with God. But the demoralized, cynical generation of Moses, Miriam and Aaron was awed only by miraculous displays of divine power. Shouldn’t Torah say Abraham and Sarah experienced Ineffable God and Moses experienced God Almighty?
Yes — if Torah meant to describe its heroes’ natural spirituality. Instead, it speaks of what was “made known” to them. It hints at what we call “numinous experience” — divine energy breaking through a veil of familiarity. Yes, each character had a natural spirituality, a habitual sense of being in the world. And each character’s complacency was disrupted. Abraham and Sarah came to believe in impossible military victories, miraculous pregnancies, and synchronistic meetings. Moses’ generation found a steadier faith in everyday moral and ritual practice.
Numinous breakthroughs introduce new possibilities, re-categorizing familiar spirituality as only a starting point. So here is an urgent call for your week: Stay Alert. What will break through into your spirituality? Interfaith work? Social justice? Political activism? Even if you, like Moses, are reluctant…Stay alert!
For more perspectives on Parshat Va’era (Exodus 6:2-9:35) — some on this very same question! — click here.