A we know, the forefathers were the “founders” of monotheistic faith; they discovered Hashem, publicized His existence, and called upon His Name wherever they went. But in our parsha we find an expression that raises a question as to their knowledge of Hashem: “And appeared to Avraham, to Yitzhak and to Yaakov as El Sha-dai, but My Name Y-H-V-H I did not make known to them.” Are we to conclude that the forefathers knew Hashem but were not familiar with this particular Name? And if so, what does it matter by which name they knew Him; why does the Torah make mention of this at all? On the other hand, if they did not know Hashem well enough to know His “first name”, as it were – His essence, then what and who were they publicizing in the world? Were they spreading true knowledge of Hashem and faith in Him?
A discussion of Hashem’s different Names may provide the answer to our questions.
Hashem is infinite, and – by definition – cannot be perceived and comprehended through human senses or intellect: He is the “One Who dwells in supreme hiddenness”. Our ability to relate to Hashem arises from the titles and names by which we refer to Him in accordance with His actions, as they appear to us. These are Hashem’s different “names”: they are “handles for the human mind to grasp the unreachable by comprehensible references”.
According to this explanation, Hashem’s appearance by a new Name does not represent any change in Him, nor any deficiency in the forefathers or their understanding. It simply represents the appearance of a new behavior; a new kind of encounter between Hashem and mortals. During the period of the forefathers, Hashem maintained and directed the world through nature, or ways that were close to nature. The beginning of Sefer Shemot brings a fundamental change: leading up to the Exodus from Egypt, a new kind of Divine manifestation becomes apparent, with great miracles and disruptions of the natural order. This reflects a transition from Hashem as the God of individuals – “the God of Avraham, of Yitzhak and of Yaakov” – to Hashem Who guides and manipulates nations and empires – “the God of the Hebrew”, the “God of Israel”. In the wake of this revelation it is not only the minority of righteous believers who perceive Hashem in the world; even those who refuse to believe are ultimately forced to admit: “This is the finger of God.”
In Hashem’s explanation to Moshe of his new role, He teaches him – and us – that the Exodus opened the door to a new relationship with the Creator, and to a new system of governing the world, which would gradually spread until the final redemption, until “the earth will be filled with knowledge of Hashem as the water covers the ocean”, “And Hashem will be King over all the world”.