While it is ideal to pray with full concentration and intent (kavanah) throughout one’s prayer, the halachah only requires us to maintain full kavanah when we say the first blessing of the Amidah; the Avot blessing (Shulchan Aruch, OH 101). The Divine names that appear there are mentioned first in this week’s Torah reading. At the burning bush, God tells Moshe that he should tell the Israelites that the “God of Avraham, the God of Yitzchak, and the God of Yaakov” sent him to them to set them free from slavery in Egypt (Shmot 3:16 and 4:6).

 

When Moshe asks God by what name he should call God to the Israelites, the answer is “I will be what I will be… ‘I will be’ sent me to you (3:14).” Later, the Tetragrammaton, the Divine name YHVH that we cannot pronounce that means “being” in the present, past, and future tenses simultaneously, is revealed to Moshe. God tells Moshe that God did not reveal Godself to Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov by that name (6:3).  Rashi comments there that the word is not hoda’ti but noda’ti; it does not say that they were not aware of that name, but rather that God did not appear to them by that name. Rashi explains that YHVH is a name not only of promise of redemption, but of fulfillment of that promise. 

 

Why, if we have such a lofty and ineffable name of God to contemplate, do we use the more pedestrian “God of Avraham, God of Yitzchak, and God of Yaakov” in our prayer three times a day? Why does God tell Moshe to report that name to the Israelites at the beginning and at the end of the revelation at the burning bush, while the name “I will be” is only mentioned once? 

 

This points to the nature of religion and of spiritual awakening. Spiritual awakening is typically achieved by individuals. Individuals are capable of deep contemplation of the nature of being and what underlies being. Individuals may seek meaning in their own lives and freely think about their places in the world. As an individual, Moshe could speak to “Being” at the burning bush, and be told to bring a message of hope of redemption to his people. 

 

As a collective, the people need something more concrete, something simpler, to relate to. While Judaism prohibits physical representations of the Divine, we are encouraged to look to our ancestors for learning and inspiration. Our hope as a people comes from the God of our people; the God of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. We may be invited to contemplate more deeply, to search higher, to study more, but as a collective, we are not expected to. 

 

This point is emphasized again when Moshe expresses doubt before God. “What if the people don’t believe me?” The answer is to perform a physical miracle. Throw his staff, and watch it turn into a snake. Such special effects amaze the people as a whole. But Moshe himself? He doubts himself, and needs to be spoken to as an individual. “I’m not a man of words. Who am I to take the people out of Egypt?” Instead of answering Moshe with a miracle as God would answer the people’s collective doubts with a miracle, God speaks to Moshe. “Who decides who sees and who is blind? Don’t make this about you, Moshe! Trust Me! Your people need you to!”

 

Let us all strive higher as a collective, and examine more deeply as individuals.

 

Shabbat Shalom!

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