Twenty two years ago almost to date, in early February of 1996, a computer program called Deep Blue was making history in the game of chess. It was the first ever computer program to beat a reigning world champion, Garry Kasparov, in a chess game. It was an amazing technological feat at the time, and it soon became evident that humans were no match for machines in analysing positions and calculating millions of possibilities and variants, to pick the winning outcome in a game of chess.

A month ago, in December of 2017, history was made again. This time, a computer program developed by a British company now subsidiary of Google, a self-learning algorithm called Alpha Zero played a 100 games match against the world’s top chess engine, Stockfish 8. At the end of the match, the score was as follows: Alpha Zero vs Stockfish: 72 games drawn, 28 wins for Alpha Zero, 0 wins for Stockfish. The result was nothing short of remarkable. The Guardian called it “a major breakthrough for artificial intelligence”, and various professors from top universities around the world characterized the program as ”an outstanding engineering accomplishment”.

But the result was much more than just an ”engineering accomplishment”. What makes this moment unique and particularly amazing is that Alpha Zero was actually never taught by humans to play chess. It was simply given the rules of the game and was allowed to play against itself for just four hours. And in those four hours it learned chess to such a level that not only it ridiculed  the best chess engine ever made, but also produced some games of phenomenal beauty and incredible complexity. In short, by playing alone, against itself, Alpha Zero learned more about the game of chess than we humans were ever able to teach a machine.

Which brings me — strangely enough — to this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vaera. Allow me first to set the scene and explain the idea, and then I promise to come back to this connection in the end.

In the opening verses of the parsha, the Torah says the following:

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר אֱלֹ-הִ֖ים אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֵלָ֖יו אֲנִ֥י יְ-הוָֽה׃ וָאֵרָ֗א אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֛ם אֶל־יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֖ב בְּאֵ֣-ל שַׁ-דָּ֑י וּשְׁמִ֣י יְ-הוָ֔ה לֹ֥א נוֹדַ֖עְתִּי לָהֶֽם׃ — And G-d spoke to Moses and said to him: “I am Hashem. And I appeared to Avraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as E-l Shaddai, but through My Name Hashem I did not become known to them.” — Exodus 6:2-3

To the best of my knowledge, these two verses are the only ones in the Torah where three different names of G-d are mentioned in such quick succession: Elokim, E-l Shaddai and Hashem.

Of course, the three names are significant and each refers to G-d in a different manner.

Elokim is the name which came to represent in Jewish tradition the attribute of divine justice. It represents G-d’s ability to discern between right and wrong, between permitted and forbidden, between innocent and guilty. The name also symbolizes G-d as a force of nature, a controller of the world. It is probably for this reason that in Hebrew, the word takes on a plural form — because it’s meant to describe G-d as encompassing and surpassing everything, in essence a Power beyond all other powers. It is in this form that G-d presents Himself during the Exodus, it is in this form that He chooses to perform the miracles, and it is in this form that He starts His dialogue and revelation to Moses.

But then G-d says “I am Hashem”, using the holiest of His Names. A contraction of the past, present and future tenses of the verb “to be” (היה הוה ויהיה), Hashem is the Name that represents in Judaism the attribute of divine mercy. G-d is a benevolent entity, a parent, a Being who is about to bring the salvation from the Egyptian slavery not just because it is the right thing to do (that would be pure justice, i.e. the name Elokim), but also because He heard the suffering of the people and wants to help them. Though they might not deserve it and though the years of slavery might not technically be over — after all, the Jews were in Egypt for “only” two hundred and thirty years instead of the promised four hundred — G-d comes here to tell Moshe that salvation is indeed at hand. The near future is a time for freedom, revelation, mission and destiny, because G-d wants it so, because He swore to Avraham, Isaac and Jacob to unconditionally take the Jewish people as His own.

And of course, the third divine Name that appears here, E-l Shaddai, comes to complete this picture. The Name is a contraction of the Hebrew words א-ל שדי (“E-l she’dai”) — G-d who is able to sustain the world all by Himself. He is “enough” for the world to continue to exist and because of that, He is also enough to deliver the Jews from slavery. At the Seder, in the Passover Haggadah, there is a song called Dayeinu, in which we recall all the good deeds that G-d performed for us in Egypt, and we declare ourselves content with them. Each of them, in and by itself, would have been enough to merit our eternal gratitude. Dayeinu, for we were in the care of El She-dai, the Almighty.

Three divine Names mentioned in our parsha — three ways to perceive G-d: as a force moving the world, as a merciful parent, and as an entity in whose merit the world (and us) continues to exist.

But there is a problem in these verses… Can you spot it? Let me read to you the verses again:

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר אֱלֹ-הִ֖ים אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֵלָ֖יו אֲנִ֥י יְ-הוָֽה׃ וָאֵרָ֗א אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֛ם אֶל־יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֖ב בְּאֵ֣-ל שַׁ-דָּ֑י וּשְׁמִ֣י יְ-הוָ֔ה לֹ֥א נוֹדַ֖עְתִּי לָהֶֽם׃ — And G-d spoke to Moses and said to him: “I am Hashem. And I appeared to Avraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as E-l Shaddai, but through My Name Hashem I did not become known to them.” — Exodus 6:2-3

It’s the very first time, G-d says, that the Name Hashem is actually “known” in the world. The patriarchs didn’t know it. Only they did. G-d did reveal His holy Name to Avraham, Isaac and Jacob. The Name is mentioned countless times in the Torah, in the Book of Genesis, including in verses talking about the life of the patriarchs. So what does it actually mean that “through My Name Hashem I did not become known to them”?

In his commentary, Rashi picks up on a particularity of the language:לא נודעתי vs לא הודעתי — “I did not become known” vs “I did not make Myself known”. His idea: the patriarchs knew the name, but did not necessarily relate to G-d through it. It was their decision, not G-d’s, to keep the Name “unknown”. Also, this Name, Rashi explains, is connected to faith in G-d’s ability to fulfill His promises. And in the time of the patriarchs, those promises — of a land, of a destiny, of a mission — were only formulated, but not yet fulfilled. True, the covenant between G-d and the Jewish nation did start with the patriarchs, but the Name Hashem only “became known” to the Jews once G-d started to actually fulfill His promises.

It’s a clever answer, but personally I like another one, provided by Chizkuni, Rabbi Hezekia ben Manoah, who lived in France in the 13th century. Picking up on the same particularity of language that Rashi notices, Chizkuni simply writes:

“Through My Name Hashem I did not become known to them” — The first answer that comes to mind is that the patriarchs never bothered to ask Me about it. They should have asked as I revealed Myself to Avraham as such already. Yet they believed in Me without the need for miracles and proof.

Of course, Chizkuni is praising here the unwavering and unconditional faith of the patriarchs. But one cannot help but notice the slight disappointment in Chizkuni’s explanation: “They should have asked”… yet they did not.

And here is where the key actually lies… Unlike the patriarchs who relied solely on faith, Moshe did ask G-d. In fact, this is how the Exodus actually starts. In a memorable exchange in the middle of the previous parsha, Moshe turns to G-d and says the following:

“Behold, I will go to the children of Israel and I will tell them: “The G-d of your forefathers sent me to you.” And they will ask me: “What is His Name?” What shall I answer? — Exodus 3:13

Who are You? What’s Your real name? These are the questions which frame the beginning of the Exodus, the beginning of our journey to freedom. And G-d answers there  אהיה אשר אהיה (”eheie asher eheie”) — “I will be the one whom I will be” or, otherwise said, believe in Me that I will become whatever you need me to become: protector, parent, guide, judge, provider, confidant, sovereign, G-d…

But it all started with a question. And now, if you were wondering what is the best way to know G-d, here is the answer: just ask. Of course, the full answer is incomprehensible to the human intellect. Not even Moshe knew everything, though he spoke with G-d “face to face”, whatever that means. But there will surely be an answer, and in that answer G-d will be revealed.

However, the story does not end here, and only now we are ready to come full circle. Moses’ question in chapter 3 (“Who are You?”) is not the first one that Moses asks. Before he seeks G-d’s Name, just two verses before, he asks: Who am I, to go to Pharaoh and take the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11)

At first glance, the question is just an indication — among many others — of Moshe’s tremendous humbleness. I am nobody, I am unworthy for the mission, please send another. But it is really so much more! It is a question through which Moshe is trying to discover himself. And in that discovery lies the trigger to the whole enterprise to discover G-d.

Interestingly enough, G-d never really answers Moshe’s existential question. He just says: “you will succeed in front of Pharaoh because I am with you”. Or otherwise put: don’t worry about the mission, I’m in charge, you’ll just be my mouthpiece, nothing more. But who you really are is YOUR task to figure out. I’m not giving you the answer, because it isn’t Mine to give. It is yours to seek and hopefully discover.

* * *

I’ve started this speech by talking about Alpha Zero and its unbelievable achievement in the realm of chess. It all started with four hours of play against itself. It started with understanding the game not because someone taught it, because someone programmed it to play or calculate or find good moves. It taught itself how to do all that. And in doing so, it became — at least as of now — the best chess playing entity in the entire world.

Discovering and “knowing” G-d can follow a similar path. Through self-discovery, we get to know the צלם אלקים, “the image of G-d” within ourselves. And in doing so, in getting really in touch with that little spark of divinity (which some might call soul or consciousness), we come closer to knowing its Source, whether it’s the just Elokim, the Almighty El Shaddai or the merciful Hashem. May we all find the courage and strength to seek our true potential, to delve deep without ourselves and to emerge stronger, better and more faithful Jews and human beings.

Shabbat Shalom!

— Offered at Beth Zion Congregation, Cote St-Luc, QC

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