Names of God
This week Jews all around the world are reading the second portion in the second book of the Torah. This sophomore section of scripture is the continuing story of Moses, his taking on the role as leader of the Hebrews, and the beginning of God’s punishment of the Pharaoh and Egypt . Just as students at the Sophomore level of high school are also considered to be growing from youthful foolishness to developing greater skills and ability for abstract thinking, the book of Exodus is on a higher level, one may argue, than the book of Genesis. Exodus contains a deeper experience of God because where Genesis describes the deity’s relationship with individuals, Exodus is God’s relationship with the entire people of Israel and Egypt for that matter.
We know that the Torah has five books, in English or Greek, they are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These names are somewhat descriptive of what the content of each book is. For example, the book Leviticus, which starts with the sound Levi, is the handbook for the Levites or those that would help to perform the sacrifices in the Tent of Meeting and later in the Temples of Jerusalem. But the Hebrew names have a different story to tell. For instance, the book Genesis, which describes the Genesis or origin of the world is aptly named. The Hebrew however, is B’reishit, which does not mean origin or creation but rather it is often translated as “in the beginning.” The book of Exodus, which is about our Exodus from Egypt, is certainly an appropriate name although the Hebrew name, Sh’mot, is more obscure. Sh’mot means “names.”
The word “sh’mot” is the first significant word in the first few words of the book’s beginning and refers to the names of Jacob’s descendants who were among those whose journey in pursuit of food led them to settle in Egypt. But the word sh’mot is also referring to the many names of God that the Torah utilizes. We read the name “Elohim,” as one of the major monikers of God but in the book of Sh’mot, the Creator reveals other names to Moses.
When God gives Moses his mission, the reluctant prophet, trying to get the deity’s credentials, says, ‘What is His name?’ What shall I say to them?”
God says to Moses, “Ehyeh asher ehyeh (I will be what I will be),” and He said, “So shall you say to the children of Israel, ‘Ehyeh (I will be) has sent me to you.’” This is My name forever, and this is how I should be mentioned in every generation.
But later the Torah says this,
God (Elohim) spoke to Moses, and He said to him, “I am ADONAI.
I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob in the name EL SHADAI, Almighty God, but they didn’t know My name, ADONAI.
and a little later it says,
“And I will take you to Me as a people, and I will be a ELOHIM (God) to you, and you will know that I am ADONAI (the Lord.)
Eh’yeh, Adonai, Elohim and El Shadai, one may start to lose track of all these names, it’s like watching Star Wars, and one may wonder, “how did this all get so complicated?” After all, in English, we just have that one word, “God…”
In our relationships we typically refer to our friends and family and coworkers by one name, their first name or their family name, but in our more close relationships we may have other names that we use to call our loved ones or those we don’t love so much. These alternative names, or nicknames, are often descriptive and the one that uses a nickname creates a shared effect on those that say the name and those who are being called by a nickname. Names mean something. Sometimes the origin of the nickname is obvious and sometimes not. Sometimes the name is known by many people and sometimes the name may only be used by one person. Sometimes the name is ironic and sometimes the name can be cruel.
In a similar way, we have numerous names for God. A medieval Spanish Mystic, Rabbi Joseph Gikatilla teaches that there isn’t just one way to experience God and we use different names to describe our varying experiences of God, our Creator, God our teacher, God our friend, and even God our enemy. Each unique name appeals to a specific characteristic of God like a unique key can open a specific door.
The Torah uses these four names of God.
Eh’yeh Asher Eh’yeh
This literally means, “I will be what I will be.” In the traditions of Kabbalah, this is one of the highest names of God. As it uses a form of the verb “to be” this name of God is more like a verb. It implies the unfolding nature of reality which always goes forward and never looks back. It is potential, it is the power of what can be. It is the will to exist and it is the source of creativity. It is the ultimate truth and to illustrate that, the mystics made a linguistic connection and pointed out that the name Eh’yeh asher Eh’yeh parallels the words “Adonai Eloheinu Adonai” in the first line of the Sh’ma.
This name isn’t even pronounced the way it is spelled. We can clearly see in the Torah that there is a word spelled with four letters, Yud, Hei, Vav, and Hei and we completely ignore these letters and say instead the words that mean, “my Lord,” Adonai? Why? Historians and scholars have no problems with attempting a pronunciation by reading the letters. This is where the term Yahweh comes from or Jehovah. But the tradition among Jews is not to pronounce them as only the High Priest and a small group of people, known as the Baalei Shem or Masters of the Name, actually knew how to correctly read that 4 letter name.
This name evokes the merciful and compassionate aspect of God. This name is experienced in g’milut chasadim, in acts of love and kindness whether one is the doer or receiver. This characteristic of God is love and it is timeless and infinite.
This is the word used by Israelis, speaking modern Hebrew, for the blanket term “God.” But in our ancient tradition this name is almost the opposite of Adonai. Instead of love this name hints at the more fearful or awe-inspiring attributes of God. This aspect of God is found in the intense and scary moments of life, it is felt in the awe of and reverence for beauty and nature. It is powerful but limited.
This is a name not used often in the Torah. It is associated mostly with the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. It is translated as “the Almighty God,” but that is not exactly what it means. The word “El” is a short form of Elohim and means “God.” The word Shadai is up for debate. Some say it is related to the word for mountain or breast invoking the part of God that is powerfully nurturing and some say that it is related to the word “Sheidi” which speaks to a dark and demonic side of God, the “shady” part.
This name accommodates the idea that even the negative and evil things in the universe were created by God. For if they were not, that would mean that there is some other power in the universe creating the negative and evil. This is not congruent with Jewish Monotheism. There is only one God, one creative power.
Four names, four different shades of our one God; but our tradition doesn’t stop with one or four names. There are thousands of names described throughout the centuries too numerous to list here. Why all the names? Perhaps the myriads of names accommodate the billions of individuals’ experience of God. Everyone who is in the world has some kind of perception of their reality. This perception of the nature and nurture of life, one could say, is the individual’s contact with the Divine, whether they are aware or not.
A favorite story of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev involves a man telling the rabbi that he just can’t believe in a God that would allow all the suffering in his life. With great compassion the Rabbi says, “my friend, the God you don’t believe in, I also don’t believe in.” Although Levi Yitzchak’s theology acknowledged that even negativity comes from the one God, he opened the door to question whether there are aspects of God that we are currently experiencing but may not be aware that it is an experience of the Divine. Or, he hints at the fact that we may dismiss God too easily because we may have an old or outdated perception of what God is. Sadly, for some, spirituality stops with adulthood and the quest for understanding the world no longer involves developing a relationship with the Eternal One.
So to paraphrase the words of the poet and philosopher, John Lennon, “All we are saying is Give God a Chance.”