Just as the Book of Genesis began with the awesome account of Creation and our place relative to the rest of the whole, the Book of Exodus reminds us of who God is and how our story is taken up into God's plan for humanity.
The stage is set: "These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household" (Exodus 1:1). The burning issue is presented: "A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph" (Exodus 1:8). The potential hero is introduced: "A certain man of the house of Levi went and married a woman of Levi. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw how beautiful he was, she hid him for three months" (Exodus 2:1–2). And the charge to the potential hero is given: "Come, therefore, I will send you to Pharaoh, and you shall free My people, the Israelites, from Egypt" (Exodus 3:10).
Moses asks, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?" (Exodus 3:11). And then Moses asks, in effect, "And who are You that the Israelites should listen to me?" The answer given to Moses transforms this tale from any other hero's journey in that it focuses not on Moses as hero, but on God, who is at once the first religious, philosophical, and moral principle.
"Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh [I Am What I Am]" (Exodus 3:14). I Am: being, morality, and holiness are inextricably intertwined. Moses, though raised in a palace, is now a fugitive for having slain an Egyptian. He is herding his father-in-law's sheep, standing barefoot before a burning bush, and receiving a response that will puzzle, provoke, inspire, and awe thinkers for the next three millennia.
"I Am" is the concept explored by the Greek philosopher Philo Judaeus, who believed that truth cannot contradict truth. And since Philo was a Jew who also believed in the truth of Plato's philosophy, he became the first philosopher to try to join Jerusalem and Athens, that is, the truths of the Torah with the truths of Greek philosophy. Philo learned from Plato, but he also took Plato's thinking further in that he did not employ a demiurge—a subordinate deity who fashions the sensible world in the light of eternal ideas. Instead, he looked for meaning to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
In medieval times, the name given at the Burning Bush served as a basic resource of Maimonides, who learned so much from Aristotle but also expanded on Aristotle's view that substance has no relationship to a God who cares. Maimonides wrote, "Praise be He who at the moment that the minds glance at His essence, their understanding turns faulty. At the moment of glancing at the necessary correlation between His will and His actions, knowledge turns into ignorance. When the tongue attempts to exalt Him with attributes, all verbosity turns into ineptitude and faultiness" (Maimonides, Guide to the Perplexed, part 1, 58:23–26). Clearly, Maimonides' first principle, unlike Aristotle's, transcends reason.
The timeless philosophy of Spinoza has much in common with Maimonides' views but adds the imperative to achieve the intellectual love of God. The centrality of the love of God to Spinoza's philosophy can be found in his treatise On the Improvement of the Understanding , where he writes that all happiness or unhappiness was placed in the quality of the object to which we cling with love. But "love toward the eternal and infinite thing feeds the mind with a joy, entirely exempt from sadness. This is greatly to be desired, and to be sought with all our strength" ( The Emendation of the Intellect , Bollingen Series, p. 9).
When we face the scientific Burning Bush in the form of Einstein's revelations, we can feel a resonance with Einstein's quest for a unified field theory (that fundamental forces are unified in the world) because he comes from the tradition of the name I Am. "Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe—a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we, with our modest powers, must feel humble. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort" (letter, January 1936, reprinted in Albert Einstein: The Human Side , ed. Helen Dukas and Banesh Hoffman [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981], p. 33).
We don't have to be great physicists to take in the meaning of God's name. As Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, "Just to be is a blessing, just to live is holy" ( The Insecurity of Freedom [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1963], p. 84). At a simchah , we wish one another l'chayim because we know it is in and through life that we find God. We seek not to flee this messy world or write it off as an illusion but to find God in and through all that is. God's name has been given to us, and it keeps us from despair, forces us to look more deeply into all we experience, and leads, ultimately, to a life of commitment, engagement, gratitude, and love.
Dr. Carol Ochs is director of Graduate Studies and adjunct professor of Jewish Religious Thought at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.