Throughout the Jewish world, Shabbat Shemot is the Sabbath on which the opening chapters of Exodus, verses overflowing with action and mystery, are read in our synagogues. I am particularly drawn to the first 15 verses of the third chapter, which tell of Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush.
Moses is shepherding the flocks of his father-in-law Jethro; as he approaches the edge of the wilderness, Moses turns aside to take a close look at the marvelous sight of a thorn bush that is all ablaze, yet is not being consumed. God addresses Moses from out of the flames and instructs him to lead the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt to “a land flowing with milk and honey.” When Moses asks God for His name, He replies, Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, words of majestic ambiguity, which roughly translate to “I will be Who I will be.”
Unfortunately, the King James Bible (1604-1611) – that masterpiece of English literature, whose stately rhythms and rich sonorities influence our language to this very day – fails to capture the Hebrew’s sense of a God whose very essence is change; the King James translation, “I AM THAT I AM,” emphasizes God’s rocklike stability rather than God’s divine dynamism. By way of contrast, Martin Luther’s 1534 translation into German, “Ich werde sein, der ich sein werde,” does manage to convey the sense of the ever-evolving and growing God embodied in the Hebrew original.
This year Shabbat Shemot fell on Jan. 10, a morning on which I had the privilege of leading the Torah study held at Providence’s Temple Beth-El prior to their weekly Shabbat worship service. Though I had resolved to focus our discussion on the many ways of interpreting Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, I found myself wrestling with the question of how to approach such a complex and weighty subject.
After considerable reflection, I decided to use a simple technique that has proved effective in a number of poetry workshops I have led over the years; as they gathered around the table, I asked the twenty or so students – among them, Rabbi Sarah Mack and Cantor Judith Seplowin – to write down a noun on a small slip of paper and to place their chosen word in a plastic bag. I then asked each student, who ranged in age from 11 to 84, to reach into the bag without looking and draw out a single word. The following nouns were in the bag: home, elephant, bird (twice), football, candle, bagel, whale, rabbit, Aruba, trader, book, frog, midwife, tree (twice), brick, child, mountain.
For the final step, I asked each student to complete the sentence, “God is like (the noun) because...” As we shared the results of this simple exercise, we all felt drawn closer to the text of the Torah, to the limitless possibilities contained within God’s name, Ehyeh asher Eyheh, a name of majestic ambiguity. One student wrote with simple elegance, “God is like a candle in that both bring light to the world.”
Another employed the metaphor of the humble bagel to touch upon the mystical notion of tsimtsum, God’s voluntary Self-withdrawal to make room for creation: “God is like a bagel, round as the world, with space in the middle for including all things.”
A third individual compared God to a midwife, “because He brings forth life” and “because He is a source of support for people in difficult circumstances.”
The man who drew from the bag the word “football” exhibited both his wit and his unwitting theological acumen by declaring, “The name of God is kicked around like a football.”
This “noun-in-the-bag” approach turned out to be so joyfully rewarding in part because the exercise forced all of us to rely upon our “right brain” imaginations rather than our “left brain” reasoning. The structure of this mini-lesson did not leave us the time to be reasonable, to figure out in orderly fashion the possible meanings of Ehyeh asher Ehyeh. We were only given a minute or two to place the nouns which came our way within a divine context – be the noun “candle” or “bagel” or “midwife;” or “Aruba” or “frog” or “trader,” for that matter.
I would further suggest that rational “proofs” of God’s existence only provide proof to those who already happen to be believers. On the contrary, it is by the magic of metaphor, by comparing the Incomparable and Infinite One to a tree or a child or a book, that we come to experience God as a Presence of ever-changing possibility.
I was a participant-observer in this exercise and had the good fortune to pick the noun “home.” Mindful of God’s Self-identification as Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, I wrote: “God is HOME, bayit, HaMakom, The Place, the alpha and the omega, the beginning of all beginnings, the end of all ends.”
James B. Rosenberg is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.