Knowing God: ‘I will be who I will be’

By Rabbi Andrew Paley
Parashat Shemot

My teacher, Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, shared a wonderful teaching about one of the most remarkable passages in the entire Torah, where God introduces Himself to Moses, and by extension to Israel and the world. At the burning bush, where Moses first receives his call to service to God, Moses asks God how he should refer to God when speaking to the Israelites. God responds with an answer that not only can be understood on many different levels, but which also demonstrates an incredible understanding of the Hebrew language. God says, “Ehyeh­-Asher-Ehyeh” (Exodus 3:13-14).

This phrase is commonly translated as, “I am who I am,” but this is not correct. The term Ehyeh is a first person future tense conjugation of the verb “to be.” Therefore Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh more literally means something like, “I will be who I will be” or “I will be who you will come to know me to be.” In his comment, Rabbi Yaakov Hiyyah suggests, “…The explanation here is that the mystery of redemption is mainly something that is yet to be revealed. Anything good in the present will, by comparison, seem like nothing, when set beside the incredible goodness of the redemption.” He expresses very nicely this sense of coming to know God over time. Ehyeh­Asher-Ehyeh indicates an unfolding knowledge of God that will gradually be revealed to Israel through their experience with, and of, God. Basically, when Moses asks God, “Who are You?” God answers, “You’ll see!”

While this name may not satisfy the Israelites, who after living in Egypt for over 300 years would probably be more comfortable with an identifiable God with a proper name, this answer does serve to instill in the Israelites a sense of hope. Ehyeh­Asher-Ehyeh suggests that there will be a future with God, and that God will not simply take the Israelites out into the wilderness and abandon them there. The relationship with God only begins with the redemption. As Rabbi Hiyyah connotes, it will only get better and better from there. 

The idea of progressive revelation has great appeal, especially for a people who maintain an acute sense of their own history and who come from an interpretive tradition. The fact that we can come to know and understand God anew in each generation and in each time means that God and God’s teaching truly are eternal, and perhaps more importantly, relevant in every era.

This is why the Torah’s use of the phrase Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh is so extraordinarily insightful. It not only presents an image of God that is beyond imagining, beyond the anthropomorphic limits of our language and the metaphoric forms of our understanding, but it promotes a knowledge of God that is developmental and progressive. We come to know God through our own experiences of God, not through some preformed name or image. By choosing the first person future tense of the verb, the name of God is presented in the gender-specific language of Hebrew in the only form that is truly gender-neutral. God is neither male nor female, father nor mother, king nor queen, lord nor lady. God possesses neither gender nor human form. Rather, God is whatever each of us come to know God as, through our own personal relationship with God. Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh frees each of us to come to know God in our own way. God will be what God will be, for each of us.

Rabbi Andrew Paley is the senior rabbi and spiritual leader of Temple Shalom in Dallas.

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