Livestreaming | Giving | Contact Us

January 5, 2024

Parashat Shemot: God’s Circle of Compassion

Daniel S. Ross

Parashat Shemot: God's Circle of Compassion
Rabbi Dan Ross


This week, with Parashat Shemot, we begin reading the Book of Exodus. A new king rises in Egypt who does not remember Joseph, and his importance to the flourishing of Egyptian civilization. This pharaoh brutally enslaves our ancestors. And then we meet Moses, the leader God chooses to redeem the children of Israel from the cruelty of Pharaoh’s oppression.

Towards the middle of the portion, we come to one of the Torah’s most well-known scenes: Moses’ first encounter with God at the burning bush. And in this most mystical moment, we find the verse my friend and colleague Rabbi Rachel Heaps dubs her favorite in the entire Torah: Exodus Pi–Exodus 3:14.

Moses says to God: When I come to the Israelities and say to them,
“The God of your fathers has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is [God’s] name?” What shall I say…?[1]

God responds with the mysterious words of Exodus Pi: ֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה

“I will be who I will be…”[2]

Now, I’m not really a believer in secret mathematical codes in the Torah, but this one gives me goosebumps. Because there’s something miraculous about the fact that it is precisely Exodus 3:14 that contains this oddly elliptical name for God. Pi is the number where finite and infinite meet. It’s simplest of mathematical concepts: The ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, approximately 3.14.

But it’s also a number that knows no end. It goes 3.14159265358979 and on and on and on. As of last year, it’s been calculated to 100 trillion digits.[3]

When God says God’s name is אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה, “I will be who I will be,” God is essentially saying: “I’m like Pi.” I too am where finite and infinite meet. I am the most fundamental property of existence, and I am limitless.

There are many names for God in the Torah: Adonai, Elohim, El Shaddai, and so on. So why is this one the name that God tells Moses to offer our ancestors at this particular moment in our story?

The 13th-century French commentator of “Chizkuni” [TD1] has an answer. He suggests that because the children of Israel had suffered so greatly, it was important to give them a name that emphasized both God’s reality and God’s eternity.

Our ancestors needed to be told that God was reliable, that God had witnessed their plight, had heard their agony, and would be there with them, in their circle, for good.[4] ֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה–I am real. I am here. And I always will be.

What a critical message for our time as well.

With all the pain and misery of the present moment—most especially the harrowing cries we hear from Israel and Gaza—it’s easy to find ourselves overwhelmed by the horror of it all. Overwhelmed to the point of numbness.

This numbness has a name.

In an op-ed in this week’s New York Times, organizational psychologist Adam Grant diagnoses this shared feeling of defeat and desensitization as “empathic distress” or “hurting for others while feeling unable to help.”[5]

Grant writes:

Empathic distress explains why many people have checked out in the wake of [today’s] tragedies. The small gestures [we] could make seem like an exercise in futility. Giving to charity feels like a drop in the ocean. Posting on social media is poking a hornet’s nest. Having concluded that nothing [we] do will make a difference, [we] start to become indifferent.[6]

That paragraph feels so painfully accurate right now.

So what are we to do?

Grant explains that when we’re struggling with empathic distress, empathy—usually one of those great human strengths—has actually become our enemy.

We’ve absorbed others’ emotions to the extent that we can no longer function.[7]

What we really need is more compassion.[8]

Compassion, as Grant defines it, is different from empathy in that instead of feeling others’ feelings, we notice them and name them. We say: “I see that you’re hurting, and I’m here for you.”[9] Grant explains that “[in its most basic form] compassion is not assuaging distress but acknowledging it.  When we can’t make people feel better, we can still make a difference by making them feel seen.”[10]

Compassion, we learn later in Exodus, is one of God’s defining characteristics.

After the sin of the Golden Calf, as God passes before Moses and proclaims the famed 13 Attributes of Mercy, the first attribute is compassion: יְהוָ֣ה ׀ יְהוָ֔ה אֵ֥ל רַח֖וּם “Adonai, Adonai, is a compassionate God…”[11]

And in this week’s Torah portion, the first time Moses stands in God’s presence,

what does God say about the plight of our ancestors?

רָאֹ֥ה רָאִ֛יתִי אֶת־עֳנִ֥י עַמִּ֖י

“Surely, I have seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt…”[12]

God doesn’t say I have felt their pain. God says I have seen it.

So tell them: אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה—I am here for you and always will be. These are the same words we need to say to each other right now. Words as simple as pi, and as powerful as the Divine Presence. We need to acknowledge that we see each other in our suffering, and that we are here for each other.

Not to help, just here.

Now is the time to send that text message, to make that phone call, to write that note. To encircle our circles with God’s boundless compassion. To tell someone, anyone, who needs to hear it: אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה—I am here for you and always will be.

Shabbat shalom.


[1] Exodus 3:13
[2] Exodus 3:14
[4] Chizkuni on Exodus 3:14
[11] Exodus 34:6
[12] Exodus 3:7

 [TD1]Hezekiah ben Manoah is the author of this text.

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or read the transcript above.