December 2003


Chapters   3:1 to 4:17 in triennial cycle

Pages 326 - 334 in Etz Hayim (EH); 398 - 402 in Plaut

By David Brooks


There are lots of things we could talk about in this Parashah, but I was constantly drawn back to those three little words: not “I love you,” but Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh.  They appear in Shemot, Chapter 3, verse 14, and they are arguably the three most important words in the Bible.  If so, this could be the most important Parashah in the Chumash.  (Needless to say, there have been lots of others, far more learned than I, who have suggested other verses as the most important.)


Before we jump into these three words, let’s look at the situation before God began speaking directly to Moses.  What do we know about Moses?  He was brought up in the Pharaoh’s palace, but knows that he is a Hebrew.  He has some sense of justice, but doubts that others do.  Thus, he looks around carefully (though, as the story goes, not carefully enough) before killing the Egyptian taskmaster who was beating a Hebrew slave.  And he does not try to explain but simply flees when his act is brought into the open.  Just a few years later, now settled in Midian, Moses seems content to live out his life as a shepherd with a wife, two kids, and a single family home in the cool hills.  True, the family is not Hebrew, but the Kenites are a related tribe and they seem to be monotheists.  Not a bad life.


So, think about this guy out with the sheep, and suddenly he sees the bush that burns but is not consumed.  Naturally, he is a bit non-plussed.  He was born to a family that had yichus among the Hebrews, and his in-laws seem to have yichus among the Midianites, but nothing has prepared him for the leadership role he is to assume.  In fact, the first thing he does when he realizes that he is talking to God is to protest that he is not capable of taking on the role that God wants to assign to him.  And then, somewhat naively I think, Moses says something on the order of, “OK, if I do agree to go, and, mind you, I have not yet agreed, who am I going to say sent me.”  The question suggests that Moses is still thinking of the kind of non-universal god who is particular to a place or a group and who can be propitiated by the appropriate offerings.


In my opinion, Moses neither expected nor wanted an answer; he was just stalling.  However, he got what is perhaps the most profound statement about God that appears anywhere.  To say that Moses was not prepared for this answer is an understatement.  Who would be?  Indeed, Moses does not even seem to take the answer seriously.  He just drops the point and goes on to more protests.  However, God was very serious, as indicated by the elaboration in 6:3, at the beginning of next week’s Parashah, where God says to Moses that He had appeared to the Patriarchs, but goes on to say, “I did not make Myself known to them by My name YHVH.”


If then those three little words are not a name of God they must be telling us something about God.  No wonder Moses was confused.  So let’s go to the words themselves.  My discussion will proceed in three stages: first, plain translation, though translation is anything but plain; second, the question of whether the three words are meant to be understood at all; and, third, possible interpretations of their meaning.



Hertz adopts the translation, “I am that I am” for verse 14, and, in God’s follow-up in verse 15, he uses, “Say unto the children of Israel:  I am hath sent me to you.”  Hertz does not suggest any alternative translations but immediately jumps to interpretation, which I will defer for a moment.


Both Plaut and Etz Hayim decline to translate and simply insert Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh and follow it up with “Ehyeh sent me to you.”  (Both chumshim use the Jewish Publication Society’s English translation of the Tanakh; Plaut, the 1967 version, and Etz Hayim, the slightly revised 2000 version.)  In fact, Kushner’s drash in EH starts by saying, “The phrase defies simple translation.”  Several more or less literal possibilities are suggested in the p’shat section of EH are:


      I am whatever I choose to be.

      I am who I am.

      I will be what I will be.

      I cause to be.


The drash section adds a number of less literal but not inappropriate translations:

      I am pure being.

      I am more than you can comprehend.

      I exist.

      God is present in our lives.


Plaut states that “Ehyeh is quite evidently the first person singular of the word ‘to be’ (%*%).[1]  However, the tense is not clear: it could mean ‘I am’ or ‘I will be’ (or ‘I shall be’).”  Plaut goes on to point out that Ehyeh appears twice, and nothing requires that the two appearances be in the same tense.  As for Asher, it is clearly a connective but it could mean either “who” or “what.”


At least, as Kushner points out in his drash, Ehyeh is gender free, which one cannot say so surely of YHVH, as it resembles the 3d person masculine of the verb “to be.”  For reasons I will explain in a moment, the translations I like best introduce a notion of future, along the lines of “I will be what I will be,” though, as David Steinberg cautioned me, this is only one of a number of equally valid and contextually plausible translations.


Meaningful or Not

The next question is whether the three words Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh really are meaningful.  They might be one of four possible kinds of statement.  To telegraph the punch, I will reject the first two as out of keeping with Jewish tradition; accept the third as a possibility; but conclude in favour of the fourth.



1.       The statement could be meaningless, just a brain teaser.  Nothing in Jewish law or lore permits this approach.  It is totally contrary to everything that is taught about Torah.


2.       The statement could mean that God is capricious.  God does what God wants, and that is that.  This approach would make God rather like the Greek gods who shared all the foibles of human beings.  More to the point, it is somewhat like the Protestant notion of salvation by faith, which, in its extreme position says that God “saves” (that is to say, brings into Paradise) those whom God wants to save, and nothing one does in life can have any influence on this choice.  As with the first possibility, nothing in the Jewish tradition fits with the view of God as capricious.


3.       The statement could be meaningful but incomprehensible to human beings.  This is the sort of problem that confronted Job, albeit in a very different context.  God said that there were some things that human beings were not meant to understand, and we had better get used to that.  Jewish tradition certainly does accept that God and God’s actions are beyond human understanding.   When bad things happen to good people, or good things to bad people, the rabbis quote R. Jannai who said, “It is not in our power to explain either the prosperity of the wicked or the tribulations of the righteous” (Avoth 4:15).  However, such an approach is out of context with the statement here.  God seems to want Moses to understand, which is why God’s later elaboration emphasizes that not even the Patriarchs and Matriarchs were fully aware of God’s identify.  (An aside, this seems remarkable given God’s interaction with Abraham and Sarah.)  Certainly, God does not inflict on Moses the thundering response allotted to Job, and God is at pains to convince Moses that this is for real.


4.       Therefore, I come to the fourth possibility: The three words are meant to be understood.  At least it was meant to be understood by Moses, and by the generations who would follow him in studying Torah.  Despite the follow-up verse, it may not have been meant to be understood by the Israelites.  As Plaut emphasizes, so far as we can learn from the Torah, Moses never actually uses this name of God in his talks to the Hebrews.[2]  Nevertheless, its very brevity conveys power, and only by accepting that God’s statement is meaningful can we satisfy both the general tradition of Judaism and the specific context of the text.



Thus, and almost inevitably, we come to the third part of my discussion.  What do those three words mean?  It will surprise no one that there are almost as many answers to this question as there are commentators on the Torah.  The discussion is complicated by the fact that three names for God appear in the same two verses (14 and 15) – not just Ehyeh but also Elokim and YHVH.  However, Plaut emphasizes that only the first is new to Moses (404):


Elohim is basic generic name for any god, and hence also for the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (verse 6); and “Lord,” or YHVH is God’s own personal name, known to him, but – as chapter 6 will show – not yet understood in its full meaning.  Here it is merely restated that, whatever the additional and newly revealed name Ehyeh betokens, God’s own name YHVH will not be affected, it will remain the same (verse 15).


And as Plaut also emphasizes, it is as YHVH that Moses presents God to the Israelites, though this too is presumably a euphemism.  In the Biblical context, if God gave a real name to human beings, they would acquire power over God.


So, we are back to Ehyeh and Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh


Hertz cites Rashi who in turn is citing a Talmudic tradition that these words are intended to convey the idea that God will be with the children of Israel not only at this time but also during future suffering.  He also cites Ramban who emphasizes that the use of “I am” emphasizes the unity of God with the implication that the children of Israel must also be unified.  And he cites Rashbam who says the words mean that God is eternal and will therefore fulfill every promise.  Interesting thoughts, but not very satisfying, at least not to me.


Plaut has a whole essay on the interpretation of those words.  He argues that the words are intended exclusively for Moses, not for the Israelites, and that they convey a dual meaning of absolute power for God and ultimate limitations for human beings, a conundrum that requires that the full sense be vague.  This is not far from the meaning drawn by R. Samuel Rafael Hirsch, “who saw a philosophical meaning . . . God stresses His own freedom to act as He wills, in contrast to earth creatures who are never totally free” (Plaut 405).  However, Plaut goes further:


Moses wants to know the nature of God by inquiring about the inner meaning of His name, but God will not be fully known and therefore evades a clear answer.  His response is intentionally vague, for it is a response to Moses only, and not a name suitable for communication.  “You ask to know My name,” God says, “and I will tell you: I am what I am, I will be what I will be.  And when you tell your people of this experience tell them it is the same YHVH they know about.”


Now with all those interpretations out there, one more cannot hurt, and, who knows, maybe mine is the “right one” (or at least one of the 70 “right” interpretations that there are said to be of every statement in the Torah).  My approach starts with a point made by both Potok and Kushner in EH.  In the latter’s words (330):


   It is significant that this name of God is not a noun but a verb.  The essence of Jewish theology is not the nature of God (“what God is”) but the actions of God (“what God does,” the difference that God makes in our lives.


My view couples this verbal flavour of God’s name with the fact that, within the year, the Exodus will have occurred, and Moses will have led the Hebrews to Sinai, where they will undergo an epiphany and become Jews, subject to the commandments.  I believe that God is telling Moses that there are two parties to this forthcoming  brit (covenant):  God and the Jewish people  – and that the two are intimately linked.  Specifically, God is saying, “If you will be my people, I will be God.”  More, God is saying, “The more that you observe My laws, the more I will be your God.”  Still more, God is saying, “The more that all peoples emulate My Essence, the more I will be a universal God.”


After developing this interpretation of Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, I was pleased to find some corroboration in the views of Erich Fromm.  According to Kushner’s drash (330):


Fromm takes [the three words] to mean: “I, God, am in the process of becoming; neither I nor human understanding of me is yet complete.  And you human beings, fashioned in the image of God, are also in the process of becoming.”


In conclusion, all interpreters load a lot of meaning onto Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh.  But they do not have a choice.  If God’s words are meaningful. and if God wants not just Moses but all of us as Jews (perhaps not the Israelites of the time) to understand them, we must interpret.  As Jews, no other option is open to us.

[1]  Some people have linked Ehyeh to YHVH.  Plaut admits that this interpretation is linguistically possible but firmly rejects it on contextual grounds.  Potok in EH is less definitive.  He suggests that the one “evokes”  the other.

[2]  Ehyeh appears only few times more in the Bible: Shm 3:12, Jud 6:16 and Hos 1:9.  In none of these cases is it clearly used as God’s name but rather is more easily translated as “I will be.”