Early in B’reshit, for example, He says, “I am HaShem (using the four-letter Hebrew name)” (Gen. 15:7). Using the same name, He says a few chapters later, “I am HaShem” (Gen. 28:13).
Yet now, at the beginning of Va’era, we are surprised to hear, “I am HaShem: I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as E-l Shaddai, but by My name HaShem I was not known to them” (Ex. 6:2-3).
There has to be an explanation, and Rashi’s view is that it is linked with what happened a few verses before when Moses feels a sense of defeat. Pharaoh has not heeded the Divine call, “Let My people go!” Things have got worse for the Israelite slaves, not better.
Moses cannot hold in his despair: “Why, O Lord,” he says, have you brought misfortune on this people? Why ever did You send me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name he has made things worse for this people, and You have done nothing to save Your people!”(Ex. 5:22-23).
God’s answer, says Rashi, comes in the words, “I am HaShem;… by My name HaShem I was not known to them (the patriarchs)”; Rashi explains, “I am HaShem” means, “I am faithful to pay a good reward; I have not sent you in vain”.
In other words, the Divine name HaShem implies faithfulness. God promises; God will fulfil. God has undertaken to redeem His people, and redeem them He will. There is no reason for Moses to lose heart.
It is a comforting message, but a problem still remains in the text. How can God say that He was not known as HaShem to the patriarchs?
Rashi’s answer is that the verse does not say, “I did not make Myself known by My name HaShem” but “I was not known” i.e. earlier generations heard the Divine name but its true significance was not yet known to them.
They had greater trust in the Almighty and did not need to be specially assured that His promises would be fulfilled.
Moses was presumably comforted by the message, but his original question to God, “Why have You brought misfortune on this people?” has rung a bell for countless later generations.
How many times in history have things gone wrong for Moses’ descendants, and how many times has the most pious and believing Jew wondered aloud why God could allow it all?
Despite God’s promises that Israel would be an eternal people, events have so frequently threatened to lead us to despair.
Yet in the long run Rashi has proved to be right: the Divine promise has eventually been fulfilled, though not without massive cost.
This is one of the reasons why the post-Holocaust agenda has often been too limited; it has rightly focussed on the monstrous evil of the Sho’ah and the unbelievable suffering it caused, but it has not always or often enough properly celebrated the survival of the Jewish people and of Judaism.
We dare not neglect to weep, but we must also be able to bring ourselves to sing.