Today’s daf wraps up a discussion that has been ongoing since the first page of the Talmud, the question of the precise time parameters for reciting the evening Shema. Midnight is the preferred deadline, but in unusual cases — like when one gets drunk at a wedding — Shema can be recited until dawn.
As is the Talmud’s wont, the discussion wanders associatively to other nocturnal obligations, in particular the Passover sacrifice which was eaten at night (which is why Passover seders are held at night). This in turn elicits several other teachings about the Exodus. Today we present one that is especially poignant.
One of the most famous scenes in the Hebrew Bible is when God speaks to Moses from the burning bush, telling him to return to Egypt and free the Israelites. After protesting that he is unworthy of the mission, Moses then adds that the Israelites will want to know God’s name. Here’s God’s response, Exodus 3:14:
And God said to Moses: Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh. [I will be what I will be].
He continued: Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘Ehyeh sent me to you.’
The rabbis are puzzled by the beat in this verse. Why wouldn’t God’s answer be recorded as one response? Why is it two?
For the rabbis, this duplicated speech invites midrashic interpretation. It hints that a fuller conversation took place — that Moses actually responded to God’s initial statement, although the response was not recorded. Here’s how the rabbis imagine that fuller conversation, as recorded on today’s daf:
God: Tell the Israelites that ‘I will be what I will be’ has sent you. I was with you in this enslavement, and in this redemption, and I will be with you in the enslavement of the kingdoms in the future.
Moses: Master of the Universe, it is enough for them to endure. Let the future suffering be endured at its appointed time. There is no need to mention their future enslavement.
God: Go and tell the children of Israel only that ‘I will be has sent me to you.’
The rabbis didn’t know about the medieval crusades, the expulsion from Spain, or the Holocaust — none of that had yet happened. But they did have their own historical memory of brutal treatment at the hands of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans. They knew that the enslavement in Egypt was far from the last persecution the Jews would face. In the rabbinic imagination, God was ready at the moment of the Exodus to soberly tell Israel all about their future suffering.
But Moses, the only prophet who ever spoke to God face-to-face, advised against this idea. Moses explained that it would be too much for Israel to contemplate. Let them enjoy this liberation, Moses counseled, other persecutions can wait. A lesson perhaps for us all.