Parashat Shemot: Naming the name

What do we mean when we say, when we use, the word “God”?

 Moses with the Ten Commandments by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Moses with the Ten Commandments by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

It is fitting that the second book of the Torah, Sefer Shemot – literally, the Book of Names – begins its second parasha (portion) with a focus on names, both godly and human.

As in last week’s parasha, there is a listing of the names of the Children of Israel. Names play an important role throughout the Torah, beginning with Adam, who, in the second chapter of the Book of Genesis (2:19-20), names every living creature.

Names are the way we not only categorize things, but also how we make sense of the world. For example, because of the importance of rain in a desert climate, from where we as a people were formed, there are many words for rain. “Geshem,” “matar,” “yoreh” and “malkosh” remind us that not all rains are the same. Names can point out that there is more than one way to comprehend a concept.

This is certainly true when it comes to God. So it is not surprising that in this week’s parasha, Va’era, we find two names of God mentioned. We read (Exodus 6:3):

“I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name Yud-Hei-Vav-Hei.” (This is often translated as Yahweh in English.)

What is fascinating about these two names is that they present very different aspects of how we understand God. The former focuses on boundaries, while the latter is boundless. El Shaddai can be translated as the God of Limits. That is to say, limits are critical for the way the world operates. All living things born eventually die; the atmosphere of the globe is composed of different elements, with certain limits to each of them, so life can exist; the temperature of the sun is limited to a range of specific degrees by the time it reaches the earth, so there is life as we know it.

On the other hand, the four-letter name of God is ever-expansive: Yud-Hei-Vav-Hei is a mixture of the past, present, and future tenses of the three-letter root hei yud hei, to be. From that basis, Rabbi Art Green teaches we can read the four-letter name of God, the Tetragrammaton, as “a proper name that should really be rendered as ‘Is-Was-Will Be’ rather than ‘God.’” In other words: another name for the Continuum of Existence.

This all raises the theological question: What do we mean when we say, when we use, the word “God”? Within Judaism, we find 72 names of God describing different aspects, attributes and perceptions of God. In the fifth book of the Torah, Deuteronomy (28:58), we read, “If you do not observe to fulfill all the words of this Torah, which are written in this scroll, to fear this glorious and awesome Name (Hashem), the Lord, your God.” In this sentence, we are told one of God’s names is Hashem, which means “The Name!” When we say “baruch Hashem” (bless God or thank God), we are literally saying, “bless the Name.”

In fact, there is a great focus on God’s name in Judaism. The opening words of the kaddish, “Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba” (May the great name of God be exalted and sanctified), are based on a verse in the Book of Daniel (2:20), “Blessed be the name of God forever and ever,” while the Aleinu prayer ends with words from the Prophet Zechariah (14:9), “on that day the Lord shall be one, and his name one.”

In addition, there are numerous references to God choosing where God’s name will dwell in the land – “then it shall come about that the place in which the Lord your God will choose for His name to dwell” (Deuteronomy 12:11). In contradistinction, in this and other instances (Deuteronomy 12:21; 14:24; 16:2; 16:6; 16:11) God seems to be more concerned with where God’s name will dwell rather than God on earth!

IN THE Nishmat section of the siddur and Haggadah, we say:

Were our mouths as full of song as the sea, and our tongues as full of joyous song as its multitude of waves, and our lips as full of praise as the breadth of the heavens, and our eyes as brilliant as the sun and the moon, and our hands as outspread as the eagles of the sky and our feet as swift as hinds – we still could not thank You sufficiently, Hashem our God and God of our ancestors, and to bless Your Name for even one of the thousand, thousands of thousands and myriad myriads of favors, miracles and wonders that you performed for our ancestors and for us.

This paragraph is extraordinary in two ways. First, it recognizes the limitations of human speech when it comes to the words we use in reference to God. And second, it has us bless God’s name! We treat God’s name with reverence and awe, which we express by burying rather than throwing out books or writings that contain the Tetragrammaton; and some people write “G-d” rather than “God.” That process, though, is a means and not an end.

There is a Buddhist saying, “Don’t mistake the finger pointing at the Moon for the Moon.” The same can be said for the name(s) of God. Those names are aids to help us to discern, fathom and grasp that which we call God, but it is an incomplete process, as we are limited in our finite knowledge to fully comprehend the Infinite, that which we may call God. If we want to name something, it means we sense its presence – in this case that Timeless Presence that fills reality and makes it all holy, connecting us in a web of awareness, relationships and responsibilities. As Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz points out, “God’s revelation of God’s own Name is not mere philosophical abstraction: it is deeply embedded in relationship.”

The fact that we have so many names for God acknowledges that our knowledge of God is fixed and imperfect. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks insightfully makes the point that “the use of the word ‘name’ marks the distinction between God as He is and as He is humanly perceived.” At the end of the day, the best we can do is to call out names: Adonai, Elohim, El Elyon, El Roi, El Shaddai, El Olam, El Elohei Yisrael, Eli, Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, Ga’al Yisrael, Hakadosh Baruch Hu, Harahaman, Magen Avraham, Makom, Mikveh Yisrael, Ribbono Shel Olam, Shechina, Tzur Yisrael, Yud-Hei-Vav-Hei – or just the name, called “the name,” Hashem.

The writer is rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation, Manchester Center, Vermont, and a faculty member of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and Bennington College.