The need to rename God

Interbreathing, not overlordship, is how our world now works.

The need to rename God (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
The need to rename God
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Early in the Book of Exodus (Shemot, or “Names”), God goes through a change of name. This is no minor side-slip. For the Eternal Holy One who suffuses all the universe to change The Name is seismic. Cosmic.
It happens first at the Burning Bush. As Moses faces his mission to end slavery to Pharaoh, he warns God that the people will challenge him: “Sez who?” And God answers, “Ehyeh asher ehyeh, (I will be who I will be)” – a fitting Name for a universe in which the poor can be empowered and the pharaoh’s power can dissolve like powder into the Sea of Reeds… Then God adds, “But that’s a mouthful. You can use just ‘Ehyeh, I will be,’ as my nickname, if you like.”
“And oh yes, you can also call me ‘YHWH.’” But we actually can’t. There’s no way to “pronounce” those letters, with no vowels. And for a couple of millennia, Jews have been strictly taught not even to try pronouncing it but instead to say “Adonai, Lord.” N ow why do we think that God’s Name has changed? Maybe it was these mysterious Names all along.
But God and Torah say: Not so. The second time the voice tells Moses that the new Name is “YHWH” is in Exodus 6:2-3.Moses is in Egypt and his first try at liberation and at organizing “Brickmaker Union, Local #1” has miserably failed. This time the Voice explicitly says that the Name by which He/She/It was known to the forebears – El Shaddai, the Breasted God, the God of Nourishment and Nurture – is no longer the Name for use in the liberation process.
Why this second voicing of the new Name? Midrashically, I suggest that Moses has, since the Bush and during his first effort in Egypt, been careless about using the new Name. He has often used the old one on the assumption that his listeners would be more comfortable with it.
But the old Name cannot inspire a new sense of reality. That’s why Moses has failed and the Brickmakers Union has collapsed.
So this time the Voice makes it absolutely clear: “Stop already! I am YHWH, not El Shaddai, even though your forebears knew me that way.”
The point is that when the world is turning upside down or inside out, God must be differently named. Because God is different when the world is different. And because human beings cannot deeply absorb, “know,” the newness of the world and their crucial need to act on that newness, unless they are challenged to re-Name God.
In our generation as in Moses’s, the world is being transformed.
The entire web of life as the human race has known it for our entire history as a species is radically changing and is under great strain.
We must re-Name God, to be truthful to the changing reality and to teach ourselves to act in new ways.
And that is why I have been urging us to know God in our own generation as the Interbreath of Life, the One that keeps all life alive, that intertwines, interbreathes, the trees and grasses and ourselves.
We breathe in what the trees breathe out.
The trees breathe in what we breathe out.
We breathe each other into life: “YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh.”
What we call the “climate crisis” is a radical disturbance in the balance of what we breathe out and what the trees breathe out – the balance of CO2 and oxygen. What we call the “climate crisis” is a crisis in the Interbreathing Name of God.
If we are to do as Torah demands, heal our deeply wounded planet from impending disaster, I think we must do as Moses learned to do and re-Name God. I think we must rid ourselves of the old Names – Adonai, Lord, King, dominating Dominus – and address Divine reality as the interbreathing of all life.
With a sacred but outdated Name, an outdated way of understanding our world, we will, like Moses, fail at the task before us.
For years, I have encouraged praying communities to breathe the Name as YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh and then to use “Yahhh” instead of “Adonai.” And then I have said that anyone who feels deeply God-connected through the use of the “Adonai” which they have recited, chanted, sung a thousand times should – for God’s sake! – keep on using what connects them.
But I have come to think this is an inadequate teaching. I am now intending to say all this, and then to add my understanding of why Moses failed at first. And why the Voice had to insist on the new Name. And I will invite people to keep that challenge in mind as they voice their own response to the Voice. Interbreathing, not overlordship, is how our world now works.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow is director of The Shalom Center. His newest books are a revised edition of “Seasons of Our Joy” and “Freedom Journeys: The Tale of Exodus & Wilderness Across Millennia”, coauthored with Rabbi Phyllis Berman