Does God Feel Emotions?
The Meaning of God's Name, "Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh"
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
We often talk about God's love for us, but does God really have emotions? In this week's parsha, Rabbi Fohrman explores an odd midrash about God's names – Eheyeh Asher Eheyeh. Why did God tell Moses that "I Will Be That Which I Will Be"?
By exploring the story behind God's names, Rabbi Fohrman uncovers a message about how inscrutable God's emotions are, and the incredible love God has for us.
Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman and welcome to Parshat Shmot. You are watching Aleph Beta. I want to consider a philosophical puzzle with you: Does God have emotions?
Does God Have Emotions?
One of the things that great thinkers like Maimonides have always said about God is that God is not comprehensible. We can say nothing about the essence of God. We can describe how God acts with us, Maimonides says, but we can't talk about who He is in His essence because His essence is utterly beyond us; which means also that any traits that we talk about, any human traits, we can't really expect those to apply to God.
Human traits, human feelings are human feelings. They are not God feelings. So we might well conclude, you know, God doesn't have emotions.
But here is the problem: are you comfortable worshiping a being that cannot experience love?
Does God Love Us?
Love is an emotion. Compassion is an emotion. Are we really comfortable in just saying God acts compassionately, acts as if he loves us but that the feeling of love and compassion is utterly alien to God?
What if you felt that your mother acted lovingly towards you but didn't feel any love in her heart? That wouldn't feel so good. Is that the way you are supposed to feel about God?
So this is the puzzle that I want to talk with you about today, and I want to talk with you about it through the lens of a fascinating Midrashic statement.
Eheyeh Asher Eheyeh: I Will Be That Which I Will Be
In this week's parsha, Moses asks God what his name is. Eheyeh asher eheyeh, he says. 'I will be that which I will be.' And then God adds something else: "Tell them, eheyeh shlachani aleichem, tell them that ‘I will be’ who sent you to them."
Before we even get to the Midrashic analysis of these words, let's spend a few moments just talking about the pshat, the simple meaning of what's going on here.
But what will you say, the simplest, most basic understanding of this conversation between God and Moses is? What did God mean when he said eheyeh asher eheyeh, 'I will be that which I will be'?
In the simple understanding, pretty much, God says, look, leave me alone. I am not going to tell you my name, I am what I am, I am going to be what I am going to be. I am the one, who just is.
And to explain that, just think a little bit about what it is that we mean when we ask for the name of something. We are trying to come to grips with it, to define it somehow. And if someone defines themselves in terms of themselves, they are actually sort of breaking the very first rule of definition which is: you never define something in terms of itself.
You can't say, what's the color purple? Ah, the color purple, it is sort of purplish. The proper way to define the color purple is well, you take a little bit of red, you take a little bit of blue, mix it together and you get purple.
But if you actually chose to define something in terms of itself, what you are really saying is that you can't just throw together two or three other concepts and make this new concept. The thing itself is utterly unique.
Why Does God Call Himself "I Am?"
Which is what God says about himself: there is nothing in your world that can explain me, I am not from your world, I am the maker of your world.
You want to know who I am? I will be what I will be. The only thing you really know about me is that I exist, tell them ‘I will be’ who sent you.
You almost hear the exclamation mark at the end of 'I will be,’ I shall be! My existence, as inscrutable as it may be, it is the basis of it all. Everything comes from my being.
The Midrashic Commentary on Eheyeh Asher Eheyeh
So something like that is what probably the plain meaning of the text is but the Rabbis had a Midrashic interpretation. They pick up on the fact that God first said eheyeh asher eheyeh, 'I will be that which I will be,' and then after that says, “tell them, 'I will be.'” They focus on that discrepancy and they suggest there was a kind of dialogue going on here between God and Moses.
First God said, eheyeh asher eheyeh, in answer to Moses’ question – 'I will be that which I will be,' – but then, the Rabbis suggest Moses objected to that. And in response to that objection, God relented and just said, “Okay, tell them ‘I will be’ who sent you to them.”
What was this debate between God and Moses about? Well, the Rabbis impute a whole new understanding to what ‘I will be that which I will be' means.
Explaining the Meaning of "I Am"
I am quoting Rashi now, "Eheyeh asher eheyeh means eheyeh imam betzarah zo asher eheyeh imam beshibod shar malchiyot." My name, you want to know my name? The One who is with them right now during their times of trouble, that's the One who will always be with them in all their times of trouble for thousands and thousands of years. That's eheyeh asher eheyeh, 'I will be that which I will be.'
Now, to that Moses objected, amar lefanav, he said, Ribono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe, mah ani mazchir lahem tzarah acheret? What do you want me to tell them about future troubles? Dayam betzarah zu, 'they have enough on their minds right now, with this trouble that they are in Egypt.'
Amar lo, to that God said, yafah amarta, 'you are saying good, Moses, you are absolutely right,' koh tomar lo Yisrael, 'just tell them,' eheyeh, 'tell them the One who will be with them right now, that's my name, you can leave out the rest.'
Now, what the Rabbis are saying is a little bit puzzling. There is this dialogue between God and Moses. God says something and then supposedly Moses objects; where did the rabbis get this idea from at all? How do they know to interpret the words, 'I will be that which I will be' in such a particular kind of way? The One who will be with them now, in their time of trouble will always be with them.
It is a very interesting interpretation but it seems to come out of the air, where are they getting this from?
Connections to God's Name "Eheyeh" in the Bible
It turns out that there was a clue that suggested this particular interpretation. The clue is the word eheyeh, 'I am' or 'I will be.' This is not the first time it is used by God with Moses, in this conversation on the burning bush.
All that the Sages were doing was asking us to look at how God used it earlier, in order to understand how God is using it now.
Earlier in the conversation, vayomer Moshe el-ha'Elokim, Moses had said to God, mi anochi? 'Who am I?' Ki elech el-Paroh, 'that I should go to Pharaoh.' I totally cannot do this.
What was God's response? Vayomer ki eheyeh imach, 'Because I will be with you.' God understood that Moses felt embattled, how was he going to go and stand before Pharaoh and get the Jews out of Egypt? He can't do that alone. God says you won't be alone. Ki eheyeh imach, 'I am going to be with you, the whole time.'
The Meaning of Eheyeh Asher Eheyeh
So all the Sages are saying is that the next time God is using these words, eheyeh, he means the same thing. Moses, you felt yourself to be in a time of trouble, listen to how I reassured you. I told you it is going to be okay. I will be with you, you are never alone in your times of trouble. I am with you.
Now, you want to know what to tell the embattled people of Israel? Tell them the same thing. I wasn't just there for one individual, you, Moses. I will be there for them, I am with them in their times of trouble, now and always.
And now, think about how this interpretation relates back to the simple meaning of the text. I have often talked about the relationship between Midrash and the simple meaning of text is kind of like the relationship between harmony and melody. The simple meaning of the text, it is like melody. The Midrash is kind of like harmony.
You listen to harmony on its own, it doesn't seem to make that much sense. But you listen to it in connection with the melody, it is playing off the melody, in all sorts of intriguing ways.
The Spiritual Meaning Behind "I Am"
Here what was the melody, what was the simple meaning of the text? God was saying to Moses, I am the Master of the Universe and you are a human being. You want to know who I am? You can't know who I am, I am utterly inscrutable.
But what's the harmony? The harmony is a mirror image of this; what I can give you is the most familiar thing in the world, the most human thing in the world. I can give you empathy. I can be there with you in your times of trouble. The unknowable being can give you the most human, the most familiar thing of all, can give you love.
But you know what the Sages say? There is another strain in the harmony too. There is actually something about God's love that it is so deep, that it is actually unknowable.
What Is the Nature of God's Love Like?
The plain meaning of eheyeh asher eheyeh is that I am unknowable, the Midrash is I am unknowable too. There is something about my love that is unknowable.
Think about the conversation that they are suggesting between God and Moses. God spoke of a love so vast that the people couldn't comprehend it. I will always be with them, now and forever and in every one of these troubles.
Moses represents the human point of view. They are frail human beings, they can't absorb all of that in their mind. God says, I know. What I have just told you is the absolute truth. You tell them what they can hear. Eheyeh, I will be with them right now.
How Much Does God Love Us?
You know, when we talk about this question does God have emotion, what answer are the Sages really giving? Let me give you a bit of an analogy. I want to share with you an interesting pattern that seems to hold when we talk about love between parent and child.
Take an amoeba, an ameba divides and now, there's two amoebas. What's the emotional connection between amoeba A and amoeba B? Not very much, right? An ant has a child, what's the emotional connection between mother ant and child ant? I imagine, maybe it’s a little bit more than Amoeba A and Amoeba B. A bird makes a nest, brings home food for its chicks. So you’d say, mother bird to little bird, probably a little bit more connected than mother ant to little ant.
Let's continue, let's talk about humpback whales. I once brought home a documentary for my children. Nice G-rated documentary. My kids are watching and there’s this scene. Two killer whales, stalking a mother humpback whale and her baby calf. The mother is willing to give her life for her calf. She is putting herself between the calf and the killer whales.
The hunt goes on for hours until finally, the killer whales break through. The calf is killed. The mother proceeds ahead slowly, mournfully. My kids are aghast, get us out of here, this is worse than the worst horror movie! The sadness of the mother was palpable.
And now, imagine a human mother for a baby, for a child; do anything for her baby. It is another level up in complexity and richness of love.
So there is a pattern here, right? The more complex the being, the more complex and rich is the feeling of love. And now, take it one step further.
God's Emotions: What Kind of Love Does God Have for Us?
A higher life form even than us, does God have no emotion? Or just no emotion that we can understand? Of course, God has emotion, utterly inscrutable emotion.
God possesses a richness and complexity of love which is completely beyond us. The same way that you can't expect an ant to understand the love of a bird, you can't expect a human to understand the love of God.
You can use the word 'love' but it doesn't do justice to the richness, the passion, of an experience that's completely out of our league.
God's love is the inscrutable eheyeh asher eheyeh, 'I will be that which I will be.' Human beings can only hear a piece of that love. So God says tell them, ‘I will be.’