I just came from a business networking meeting, so I’ve been thinking about introductions and “elevator speeches”. How do you introduce yourself? By name, I’m sure, and then what? What you do? Who you know? Mutual connections? We usually introduce ourselves in terms of nouns – teacher, counselor, facilitator, IT person, parent, etc. In this week’s parasha, Shmot, the first portion in the book of Shmot, Exodus, an introduction comes as a verb, and it happens between Moses and God.
Moses is out in the wilderness, and he sees a bush that is burning, but not burning up. That gets his attention. Then he hears the voice of God, and God’s elevator speech: “I am the God of your fathers, of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob….I’ve heard the outcry of My people, and I’ve come down to save them from the Egyptians….and I’m sending you (Moses) to Pharoah to free My people…” (Ex 3:6-11) After turning down the job a few times, Moses then basically says, “Who shall I say is calling?” And here comes God’s “verb-al” introduction: God says, “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh”. Even the new JPS (Jewish Publication Society) translation doesn’t know what to do with this, so they just wrote transliterated Hebrew, but it’s something like, “I will be that which I will be”. For the first time, God actually has a name besides the one everyone else has been using, and it’s one that God creates for God’s-self! One final act of creation?
It used to be rare that we got an opportunity to give ourselves a new name. I got to do this first a long time ago, when I got my first CB radio (don’t judge!), and we now name ourselves all the time, as we establish email addresses and Twitter accounts. Each time, we take a moment to confront our own fundamental identity – who do we want to be and what do we want to convey with this name? Claiming an identity is difficult, and it’s even harder to live that identity. We wear so many hats, act in so many different roles. What’s at our core? What is our deepest, truest name?
The whole book of Exodus is about communal identity, I think. A scraggly, fragmented, enslaved group of people, who used to be individuals with names and nouns, becomes a somewhat cohesive, re-formed community. By the time they leave, and throughout their trials and travels, they forge a new identity – the “Bnai Israel”, the people of Israel, complete with leaders, social rules and a new relationship with God. Certainly, God was present and active throughout Genesis. What was different about this Exodus context that required a new, action-word name?
Maybe it was the communal setting that required it. When God was pretty much one-on-one with Abraham, et al, it was enough to be simply “God”. But with an entire nation to engage, God had to have a name that said something different, something that promised action and a connection to an entire nation, something that would last for generations to come, something that, even when God returned to the more familiar “God”, had gotten across the point of something dynamic and connecting.
With whom or what is our deepest, truest connection? In fact, how do we connect with this community that evolved in the wilderness? This is a question the entire world-wide Jewish community is grappling with these days. Maybe we should take a lesson from how God answered this. Find a way to tap into that community with your deepest, truest name. Be a force for change, be active and connected….be a verb.