Students of Torah literature know that serious scholarship begins (and often ends) with the commentaries of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, familiar to the Jewish world as Rashi. His synthesis of Talmud, midrash, and kabbala, together with the multifaceted brilliance of his insights and his economy of language, sets Rashi in a class by himself as he draws our attention to nuances, forces us gently to consider scriptural anomalies, and weaves the breadth and depth of Torah philosophy into his pithy explication of Biblical and Talmudic passages.
Consequently, scholars grow nervous when Rashi appears to point out the obvious. And nowhere does Rashi offer a comment more seemingly pointless than at the outset of this week’s Torah portion.
And Elokim spoke to Moshe, and He said to him, “I am HaShem; and I appeared to your forefathers, Avrohom, Yitzchok, and Yaakov, as Keil Shakkai, but My name HaShem I did not make known to them” (Shmos 6:2-3).
Rashi first explains that scripture’s use of the name Elokim – referring to G-d’s attribute of justice rather than His more dominant attribute of mercy – places our verse in its proper context as a response to Moshe’s complaint at the end of last week’s parsha, “My Master, why have you brought evil (i.e., injustice) upon this people, and why have you sent me?”
Rashi then addresses HaShem’s remark concerning the revelation of His name to the patriarchs. The name HaShem represents mercy and therefore implies the fulfillment of promises; consequently, even though G-d identified Himself to the patriarchs using the name HaShem, He never revealed Himself to them as such through the fulfillment of promises that would only be honored in the time of future generations.
It is Rashi’s next comment, however, that confounds us. On the words And I appeared, Rashi offers this insight: to the patriarchs.
Since the verse continues to tell us that HaShem appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the only three patriarchs of the Jewish people, to whom else could Rashi have thought we might mistakenly suppose HaShem had appeared?
The Zohar explains that Torah wisdom is both inherited and acquired. Even if a scholar eventually surpasses his parents or his teachers in wisdom, it is the wisdom of his parents and teachers – which they themselves received through their link to Sinai – that has enabled their child and their student to reach whatever heights he has attained in Torah. Even Moshe the Lawgiver, whose unique mastery of piety and spiritual wisdom sets him apart from every other figure in Jewish tradition, built his own accomplishments upon the spiritual foundations of his forebears.
However, to this rule there are three exceptions: the patriarchs – Avrohom, Yitzchok, and Yaakov – so called because they had no one else from whom to learn and no one else’s accomplishments upon which to build.
Born into a generation in which all knowledge of HaShem had been effectively forgotten, Avrohom came on his own to a recognition of his Creator and spent his life developing within himself the attribute of chesed – lovingkindness – the perfection of mitzvos bein adam l’chaveiro, commandments between man and his fellow. And although Yitzchok inherited from his father a knowledge of the Almighty, he nevertheless labored to develop within himself the entirely different quality of gevurah – spiritual self-discipline – with no model from whom to learn the process of perfecting mitzvos bein adam L’Makom, commandments between man and G-d.
Finally, as much as Yaakov learned chesed from Avrohom and gevurah from Yitzchok, he had no model for how to perfect within himself mitzvos bein adam l’atzmo, commandments between man and himself, by blending these two mutually exclusive qualities into a new attribute called emes – ultimate spiritual truth.
From this point on, with the establishment of these three qualities woven into the spiritual fabric of the universe and infused into the spiritual DNA of the Jewish people, all Torah accomplishment rests upon the foundations of the patriarchs.
Where does Rashi find an allusion to this profound and mystical lesson in the beginning of our parsha? Maskil L’Dovid explains that this idea is essential to understanding HaShem’s reply to Moshe.
According to Sfas Emes, Moshe complained that G-d had brought evil upon this people because he, Moshe, had calculated that the Jews had endured all the suffering necessary for them to earn redemption. If the accounts balanced, reasoned Moshe, then to make the people suffer further was not only pointless but unjust.
What Moshe could not have realized was that, even if the Jews of this generation did not deserve any further suffering, the survival of future generations would one day depend upon the collective Jewish suffering the people were experiencing now. To become stronger through continued tribulations, and to have undeserved suffering “on credit” against future transgressions, the continued oppression of the Jews in Egypt would provide shelter from the harshness of divine judgment later on.
Consequently, HaShem rebukes Moshe, not for his reasoning but for his lack of trust. “I appeared to the patriarchs,” says HaShem, “not because of what they inherited but because of what they made themselves. And yet, without the advantages you have as their beneficiary, they never lacked in trust that I would ultimately fulfill the promises I made to them.
“That trust,” explains HaShem, “is the basis of how they became great, how they became the patriarchs whose merit now stands by you, just as the merit of your generation will stand by those who come later.”
Three times a day, we begin our silent prayer by acknowledging our relationship with HaShem – our G-d and the G-d of our fathers. By standing upon the shoulders of our forebears, we benefit from the connection and the resources we have inherited; at the same time, we acquire our own merit from which our children will benefit as we have. The power of each, and the power of both together, is beyond our comprehension. And the trust we have in that power, especially in the darkest of times, is the key to our ultimate redemption.