What’s in a name?

This week’s parasha is a story of blockbuster proportions. We’re getting into the heat of the Exodus narrative. It’s a story of treachery, captivity, leadership, and the launching of Charlton Heston’s career. And of course, it all begins with a few simple personal introductions:

And God spoke unto Moses, and said unto him: I am the LORD and I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, as אל שדי but by My name יהוה I made Me not known to them.

Sh’mot 6:2-3

In Torah study at my shul, we never get beyond the first few verses, so we spent the better part of two hours dwelling on these few lines. Of course, the question came up as to why God has more than one name, and why they are used at various times. For some, the natural response is that there are multiple authors/editors of the Tanakh, and so they use different names. For me, resorting to the Documentary Hypothesis whenever there’s a perceived inconsistency in the Tanakh is a little too easy and logical. Setting aside for the moment that it is – by definition – merely a hypothesis, I believe that sometimes the desire to find logic in the Bible detracts from the more mystical elements of the text that can have great importance. Check out this article for more insight on this topic.

The fact that Moses is the only human ever to know God’s proper Name, and the fact that we can’t just go find him and ask him what it was is a deeply important part of Jewish theology. There is something mystically wondrous about God having one singular unknown name, but having a plethora of titles to be approached with. It means that no person is more entitled to speak to God than another; it means that we all can find a personal way to address God; it means that God isn’t limited by our human necessities to label everything and everyone.

The different titles we have for God is also an important part of Jewish monotheism. While each of the other gods of the ancient pantheon had their own name and their own job (meet Ra the sun god, Thor the thunder god, and Neptune the sea god), יהוה has many appellations, and many jobs, but remains singular. Other peoples needed to assign different names to each of their gods, but our God’s singularity encompasses all of these names.

So we can say that the presence of El Shaddai, El Roi, Elohim, and YHVH are the result of different people putting together different texts. Or perhaps – if we can allow our minds to surpass the need to rationalize everything in a scientifically logical manner – we might find that these names are part of the awesomeness of Jewish monotheism. One God with just one title leads to fighting in the name of God, and the possibility that other people are given limited access to God. One God with many titles ensures that all can approach God with equal access and no superiority.

May we all strive to find the Holiness in God’s name, and bring that holiness out in each other.

Shabbat Shalom!

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