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Naming the Divine

Names are very important. They have a power all their own. There are names that inspired revolutions and overturned entire civilizations. There are names that have struck terror into the hearts of all who heard them. And of course there are many who claim that the sweetest sound that a human being ever hears is the sound of his or her own name.

Some names reveal the hidden dreams and fantasies of the parents who gave them. Other names reflect a new lease on life, the feeling of unlimited possibilities or the search for a new identity. People take on names to help change their personality, inspire a new way of thinking, let go of the past, or signal a new or unique interpersonal relationship. Names remind us of who we are and who we might yet be.

There are “pet names” we give to those we love to set them apart from our everyday relationships. There are names we call people to show our disapproval or scorn. There are names whose very sound has brought war and destruction and pain in its wake, and others whose gentle melody evokes memories of tenderness, compassion and love.

There are cultures in the world who use names as a way of capturing the essence of the soul. And others who use names to ward off evil or create magic and mystery.

No matter who you are or where you live, what language you speak or what civilization you embrace, no one is indifferent to names. And that is why the opening lines of this week’s Torah portion are so filled with Jewish mystical meaning and import. The portion begins, “God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am ADONAI (yud, hay, vav, hay in Hebrew). I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as EL SHADDAI, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name ADONAI.” (Exodus 6:2,3)

In Jewish mystical literature we are taught, “There are seventy names for God.” And indeed, throughout the Torah, Talmud, Midrash and all Jewish literature God is referred to by almost more names than can be counted. Why so many names, and why does God tell Moses that the name he knows God by is different from that of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? In fact, this very name that God claims wasn’t known to the patriarchs, was very familiar to them at every stage of the Biblical story. The reality is that ADONAI, yud, hay, vav, hay, is the most popular form of God’s name in the entire Bible. It appears no less than 6,823 times! So why would God claim that it wasn’t the name he used with the patriarchs?

The answer lies in the very power of names themselves, in our personal understanding of what it means to be holy and in recognizing that in truth, each of us has our own private names for God as well. For the real meaning of God’s names derives from the context in which those names are used, and the qualities and attributes of holiness that they symbolize.

The Midrash on this week’s portion explains this in traditional rabbinic language. “Rabbi Aba bar Memel said, ‘God said to Moses, “You want to know my name? I am known according to my deeds. Sometimes I am known as EL SHADDAI, sometimes as TZEVAOT, sometimes as ELOHIM, sometimes as ADONAI. When I judge creation I am called ELOHIM. When I make war against evil I am called TZEVAOT. And when I forgive the transgression of human beings I am called EL SHADDAI. And when I show compassion on my world I am called ADONAI, for any time I am called ADONAI, you will find the quality of compassion. You see, you can know me and my name according to my deeds.”

That is why the rabbis teach that there are seventy names for God. Every name reflects a quality in relation to human beings that each of us can choose to emulate in our own lives. Thus in Jewish mysticism, the ideal state is to be in harmony with the Divine by emulating the attributes reflected in the great diversity of divine names.

As God is called, “The Compassionate One” (HARAKHAMAN in Hebrew), so each of us can strive to be compassionate in our behavior toward others. As God is called EL SHADDAI (The Nurturer), so we can be nurturing of the dreams and longings of others. As God is called The Righteous Judge (DAYAN EMET), so we can express righteousness and stand up for justice in our lives.

So when God tells Moses that he was known by a different name to the patriarchs, it is because every moment in history, and every challenge we face personally demands that we draw upon a different quality of holiness to emulate in our lives. We must choose the name of God that captures the essence of the attributes of Godliness that is appropriate to the moment, and up to the challenge of the day.

The leadership of Abraham, the lessons of Isaac, the challenges of Jacob all required different role models of holiness than the demands upon Moses to be the liberator and then giver of the Torah and establisher of an entire Biblical civilization. What is most remarkable about this week’s portion, is that even as God was demanding that Moses engage in a cosmic battle with the Pharaoh for the hearts, and souls and bodies of the Hebrew people, even as he was about to visit plague after plague upon the Egyptians ending with the death of their firstborn, the name by which God chose to be known is ADONAI – yud, hay, vav, hay – a name the Midrash links forever with “the quality of compassion.” If that isn’t quintessentially Jewish, I don’t know what is.

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