There’s an old, old joke about Stalin and Trotsky. It goes this way: Stalin emerges to address an expectant crowd. “Comrades!,” he says. “I have in my hand a telegram from Comrade Trotsky, which I think will resolve our current differences of opinion. Let me read it to you: ‘You were right and I was wrong. You are the true heir of Lenin. I should apologize. Signed, Leon Trotsky.’” The crowd goes wild. But one man in the crowd signals to get Stalin’s attention.“Yes, comrade?,” Stalin asks. “Comrade Stalin, I think you know Comrade Trotsky is Jewish.” “Yes, I do.” “Well, I’m Jewish, too, and I thought I might have an extra insight on what Comrade Trotsky was trying to say. May I read the telegram myself?” “Of course, comrade!,” Stalin asks.The man gets up and starts reading: "You were right and I was wrong? (question mark) You are the true heir of Lenin? (question mark) I should apologize? (question mark) Signed, Leon Trotsky.”
See: when you are Jewish you add a lot of question marks, everywhere. And you realize that written words are not enough. Take for example the verses 2 and 3 of Exodus 6
וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹהִים, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, אֲנִי יְהוָה.
וָאֵרָא, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אֶל-יִצְחָק וְאֶל-יַעֲקֹב--בְּאֵל שַׁדָּי; וּשְׁמִי יְהוָה, לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם
God spoke to Moses and said: אֲנִי יְהוָה. I am God. I appeared to Abraham, to Izak, to Jakov in El Shadai, and my name יְהוָה, Adonay, לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם .
This לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם lo-nodaati lahem is problematic: it is a first person passive form, a niphal, of the verb ידע, which literally means to know. So if we translate closely, we should read: "I, God, was not known to them", to the Patriarchs.
Wait a minute. Is the text saying that God appeared to the Patriarchs and they did not know God’s name? The classical commentators have an ingenious solution for this problem. Because the problem we are struggling with is very serious. It is a theological one. Is the God who appears to Moses different from the one who appears to the Patriarchs? Of course not, Rashi says. We need to read it like that telegram from Leon Trotsky: adding the proper punctuation.
“וָאֵרָא, I revealed myself, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אֶל-יִצְחָק וְאֶל-יַעֲקֹב to Abraham, Isaac and Jakov בְּאֵל שַׁדָּי As El Shadai, but my name isיְהוָה Adonay, and that I did not revealed to them”.
According to Rashi, El Shaddai is a Divine Name related to the Promise, so you see there is a logic in his understanding of the text. When God appeared to the Patriarchs, it was about the Promise. Now that God appears to Moses, the Promise is coming close to be fulfilled.
The interpretation of the classic commentators is apparently so convincing that it has become mainstream. You will find it in the the English translation in the contemporary commentaries, like Etz Hayym, the American Conservative, the Stone Chumash, or our British Hertz: “I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name”. They all rely on a row of classical commentators who buys into that Rashi reading of the text. Like Ibn Ezra, who even states: "This verb is not a niphal, passive; it’s an hiphil, a causative. You should read: I did not make my Name known to them. God did not make his Name known to the Patriarchs, rather He revealed himself completely to Moses, to whom he’s speaking now".
That’s fine, but to me the problem is that, well, that verb is not a causative form. It’s a passive form. And the root י ד ע in Biblical Hebrew does not mean to reveal, it means to know, in a very direct, experiential way: in a Biblical way, literally. Therefore the proper reading of the text is exactly the most troubling: God said: “I appeared to your forefathers as El Shaddai, and they did not know Me”. And I quite like the reading of this passage from the writing of the Maharal from Prague: the understanding, the knowledge, of the banim, the children, is not the understanding of the avot, the fathers, to whom God appeared as El Shaddai.
Now, I find it very moving: in Italy, the Shaddai, is a special amulet, usually handed to you from your parents. Often is a simple Magen David, that the parents place in the cradle, under the pillow. And when you grow up, it becomes a pendant for your necklace. Before you ask, I will admit: yes, it’s pure superstition. It aims to protect the weak child from the omnipresent evil eye, the ayin haraa, which becomes envy, which becomes gossiping, which leads to fight and war. Did our parents really believe to this superstition? If asked, they would say that “believing” is probably not the proper word. They would never admit it, and only speak of Shaddai as a lovely, lovely tradition.
“As El Shaddai God appeared to the previous generations” says our verse. Do we really believe to the superstitions related to the word Shaddai? Of course not. Do we live in the same world, dominated by the uncontrollable force of the ayin ha-raa, the envious eye? Of course not. We live in a world that had been able to transform envy, greed, in a force for the development of the economy. Although the consequences are not always good, but that is for another sermon.
And, yes, our understanding of God is different from our parents, and from the previous generations. Indeed, we can say that God appeared to them, as in our verse; but they did not know God in the same way we know. The various understandings are so different that even the same object has different meanings: one for the generation of the parents and another for the sons’ generation.
And how difficult it is, so difficult, to find a common language, a way to communicate, to hand down to our children what we have received from our elders. That we ourselves understood in a different way. It is the case for a jewel. It is the same case for our belief system, for our culture, for being Jewish; as it is the same case for God.
To me, the strength of Judaism, the source of the resilience of our faith, is not that it has always been the same. As (supposedly) it was in the old days, as if we had the duty to preserve and pass on intact. No: Judaism is a progressive religion. Every Jewish generation has a different, and perfectly legitimate understanding of Judaism. Every generation lives in a different world from the previous one. As our verse implies by listing the different Patriarchs, Avot, in their historical, chronological order: “I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, to Jakov”. Just before, there is a revelation, Vaera’, I appeared. But every generation understands it, names it, in a different way.
I really cannot know, now, which sort of understanding my son will have, when he will be my age. What will mean to him to be a Jew. What will he do with this precious gift that me and my wife are handing over to him; by lighting the Shabbat candles, going to shul, narrating stories from the Torah, celebrating the holidays, going to Limmud, maintaining a relation with Israel, learning Hebrew etc. To me all of this is El Shadday, which carries a nice resemblance with dai, dayenu!, enough! But most probably my son will give another name to all of this, to being Jewish. And as a proud Jewish parent, at the moment, I can only say it will be a smart, intelligent, and clever one.
Whether I will understand it, or not.