The Book of Exodus refers to the God of history – “Y-H-V-H,” “I shall be what I shall be,” whereas the Book of Genesis speaks of the God of creation – E-l shaddai or E-lohim (Exodus 6:3). What is the difference between these names? Does the God of Genesis demand a different kind of fealty than the God of Exodus?
The Hebrew word el means power, so the E-lohim of the Book of Genesis is the sum total of all the powers that created and control the cosmos.
As physicist Gerald Schroeder explains in his masterful “God According to God:””We reside on a very special planet at a very special location within a very special stellar system, formed at just the right position within the right kind of galaxy. The earth’s distance from the sun, for the right amount of warmth and its mass and gravity, for the ability to retain a proper atmosphere, put us in the only habitable zone within the solar system.”
It was this great Power who set limits to each variable in order to enable intelligent, sentient life to flourish on our planet.
And it was this same Power that set limits on human beings, restraining us in accordance with a divine legal code that will eventually produce a global society of compassionate righteousness and moral justice. The Almighty communicated His laws to Noah and Abraham in the splendid and solitary uniqueness of His glory, without the participation of any others. Such is the E-lohim of Genesis.
Not so the Y-H-V-H of Exodus, the God that is revealed in the unfolding historical process, He is very different from the God revealed at once in the “Big Bang.” The God of Creation spoke and it came to be, majestically, solitarily. The God of Exodus required the cooperation of His covenantal nation Israel; “He will bring about” the redemption, but precisely when and where will depend on Israel, and Israel’s willingness to act in accordance with His will. The fruition of His plan will depend on Israel’s willingness to be redeemed.
Hence, God almost begs Moses to accept the leadership of the Israelites. God will remain hidden in the cloud; Moses must stand on the front line and be backed up by a willing, inspired and committed nation.
After Moses complains that the Israelites will not listen to him comes a difficult verse: “The Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, and He instructed them regarding the Israelites and regarding Pharaoh the King of Egypt [as to how] to take the children of Israel out of Egypt” (Ex. 6:13). Rashi brilliantly explains, “He commanded them to lead the Jews with sensitive understanding and to have patience with them.” After all, God entered into a covenant with an entire nation; that nation must be taught and inspired to act in a way that will bring about its redemption. The plagues were a lesson to the Israelites and the Egyptians that God wants His people to be free. This lesson continued with the paschal sacrifice – a sacrifice that represented an act of commitment unto death on the part of the Israelites. Then we come to our portion, when the Israelites finally reach freedom in the desert. But their happiness is short-lived; soon they hear the Egyptian army approaching from behind while the seemingly impenetrable Reed (Red) Sea lies in front of them. They cry out to Moses in panic; Moses still doesn’t seem to understand that God’s condition for redemption is Israelite action! The prophet then declares: “The Lord will do battle for you, but you must remain silent” (14:14). God corrects Moses: “Speak to the children of Israel and let them start moving [into the sea]” (14:15). Then the first group of Israelites, accepting their role as God’s partners, jump into the surging waters!
How beautifully does the Vilna Gaon explain the text: “The children of Israel entered the sea, which then became dry land; the waters became for them a protective wall [homa] on their right and on their left” (14:22). The Bible continues, “And the children of Israel went on to the dry land [which had already emerged from the midst of the sea]; and the waters became for them an instrument of anger [hema, without a letter vav] on their right and on their left” (14:29). The Vilna Gaon says this refers to the second group of Israelites, who did not risk their lives but waited for dry land to appear. If we hope to be redeemed, we must first demonstrate that we are worthy of redemption.
Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.