On Saturday evening, March 5, about 80 members of the Rhode Island Jewish community came together at the Dwares Jewish Community Center, in Providence, to celebrate our collective joy in Jewish learning. The occasion was the third annual “DRASH & Dessert,” an educational program sponsored by the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.
This year’s theme was “V’ahavta L’reacha Kamocha: Love your neighbor.” After a havdalah service led by the spirited singing group Pastrami on RI, participants were asked to choose one of five learning sessions: “From Cuba to Newport: Helping Jewish Communities Around the World,” led by Rabbis Sarah Mack and Marc Mandel; “Cultivating Love: Spiritual Techniques,” led by Rabbis Elan Babchuck, Mark Elber, and Barry Dolinger; “We Can End Homelessness in Rhode Island!,” led by Rabbi Alan Flam and members of the Speakers Bureau of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless; “Jews and Christians: Speaking to Each Other with Respect,” led by Rabbis Wayne Franklin and Richard Perlman, and Pastor Dennis Kohl.
I had the privilege of leading “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh: A Workshop on the Names of God.” The focus of the discussion for the 15 or so men and women in our group was the first 15 verses of the third chapter of the book of Exodus, which includes Moses’ vision of the bush that burns but is not consumed. From out of the flames, Moses hears the mysterious Hebrew words Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, which can be translated as “I will be Who I will be.”
I began our workshop by asking each participant to complete in writing a sentence beginning “God is...” Among the responses: “God is love.” “God is everywhere, within each of us, unknowable.” “God is the overriding process who created and maintains order in the universe.” “God is ungendered.”
Another participant wrote, “I have absolutely no idea.” Still another responded to “God is...” with “God is?” I am drawn to question marks; some readers may recall that I suggested in one of my columns last fall that God is the ultimate unanswerable question.
Our discussion moved from a review of the written responses concerning the general notion of God to a close look at God’s name - or no-name - emanating from the burning bush: Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, I will be Who I will be. The question that dominated our remaining time together was whether God’s response was meant to be taken as a name or meant to be taken as a refusal to be named.
My own sense is that Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh are words of deliberate and potent ambiguity - words of fluidity, as a woman in our group put it, of openness to continuing interpretation. It is as if God is saying to you and to me, “I will be Who I will be, and you can never limit Me by any name or idea or definition.”
In his book “Moses,” first published in 1947, the Austrian-born Israeli Jewish scholar Martin Buber (1878-1965) argues that the words Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh set the God of ancient Israel apart from the gods of Egypt, who can be conjured, manipulated, even controlled by professional priests who have been trained to speak the sacred formulas and perform the sacred rites. As my colleague Rabbi Lawrence Kushner has written, ever so succinctly, the central message of our Tanakh, our Hebrew Bible, is, “I’m God; you’re not!”
At the close of the hour-long session, a man named Harry stayed behind to walk me through his unique interpretation of the opening verses of Exodus, chapter 3. Armed with several pages of his own prepared material, he showed me an alternate way of dividing the eleven Hebrew letters of Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh. While preserving the exact order of the letters, Harry broke them up to read, Ehyeh Aish, Re’ey Yah, which translates to “I will be fire; see (behold) Yah [one of the many terms for God in the ancient Near East].”
By choosing to break up the Hebrew letters to form these words, my fellow seeker has attempted to clarify the ambiguous Divine response; this new wording, “I will be fire,” speaks directly to Moses’ experience: flames shooting forth from a thorn bush that is not being consumed. Moreover, the name Yah is clearly recognizable as a widely used term for God.
On the other hand, Harry’s ingenious reading of the Hebrew text removes the powerful and fructifying ambiguity of the words Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh.
Sometimes clarity is not a virtue; paradoxically, sometimes clarity obscures a deeper truth. I prefer to read these three Hebrew words as they have stood for millennia - in all of their magic and mystery.
Nevertheless, I am immensely grateful that Harry shared with me his ingenious midrash on Exodus, chapter 3, verse 14; his provocative interpretation of three of the most significant words in our sacred canon adds an enduring link to the centuries-long chain of Torah study.
Equipped with Harry’s fresh insights, whenever I find myself in the presence of “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, I will be Who I will be,” I will at the very same time feel the presence of “I will be fire; see Me as Yah,” and I will know that the flame of Jewish learning continues to burn from generation to generation.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.