Thursday, January 7, 2016

Vaera and God's Many Names

This week’s Torah portion, Vaera, opens with the words: “God spoke to Moses and said to him, ‘I am Adonai. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name Y-H-V-H…” (Exodus 6)

To Moses God offers this personal name of YHVH. We, however, no longer know how to pronounce this name and so we say, Adonai, my Lord. This name is related to the name revealed at the burning bush. When Moses asks, “When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?’” God responds, Eyeh Asher Eyeh, meaning “I will be what I will be.” (Exodus 3) YHVH is thus a form of the verb, “to be.” What a mysterious, and wonderful, name. The name of God means: God is.

As a consequence the Jewish tradition has many names for God. A casual search of the prayerbook yields well over 50 different names. Here are a few: the Teacher, the Holy One Blessed be He, the Place, Builder of Jerusalem, the Healer, God of Thanks, Lord of Wonders, our Father our King (Avinu Malkeinu), Rock of Israel and Lord of Peace.

We call God by many different names. We find God through these many names. The Psalmist declares:
The heavens declare God’s glory
the sky proclaims His handiwork.
Day to day makes utterance,
night to night speaks out
There is no utterance,
there are no words… (Psalm 19)
Language is merely scratching the surface. Our words are only glimmers of the divine. Reaching out to God is not a perfect science. Even our prayers are mere attempts. Our most carefully constructed sentences and most heartfelt songs can only, at best, extend upward.

One of my favorite poets, Denise Levertov, concurs: 
Lord, I curl in Thy grey
gossamer hammock
that swings by one
elastic thread to thin
twigs that could, that should
break but don’t.
I do nothing, I give You
nothing. Yet You hold me
minute by minute
from falling.
Lord, You provide.
We stretch and weave words as if they are hammock strung between two branches. Hammocks can be comfortable and relaxing when they envelope us, as we sit in the summer shade, yet unsteady when our weight is shifted ever so slightly.

Words are both flimsy and secure. Our tradition therefore offers us many different names, many different paths to reach our God. None of them are perfect. None of them are the final answer. Indeed the rabbis declare that there are 70 different facets of the Torah. There is never one Jewish answer! There is no one answer when it comes to interpreting Torah and even when it comes to naming God.

We find God through many names and many different places. May this coming Shabbat be indeed a Sabbath of peace, quiet and relaxation. May it be a day when we hear at least one of God’s names emerge from our lips.

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