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Torah Commentary
Va-eira (January 17, 2015)

Saul Kaiserman,
Director of
Lifelong Learning

“EACH OF US HAS A NAME,” wrote the Israeli poet Zelda,
“given by God, and given by our parents.” The poem begins:

Each of us has a name
given by our stature and our smile
and given by what we wear

Each of us has a name
given by the mountains
and given by our walls

Our ancestors agreed with Zelda, and according to Rabbinic commentary, each of us has three names: one we are given by our parents, one by our friends and colleagues, and, above all, one we acquire for ourselves. (Midrash Tanhuma, Vayak’heil 1) And like us, cats also have three names, at least according to the poet T.S. Eliot, the most important being:

The name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover
But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.

Like humans, and cats, God too is known by many different names, even within our tradition. In the opening verses of this week’s Torah portion, God tells Moses that his ancestors — Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — called God El Shaddai, but Moses will use a new name, the one we still use most frequently today: Adonai.

The “Tetragrammaton,” the four Hebrew letters yod-hei-vav-hei, sometimes is written as YHWH. While sometimes you may see this written as “Jehovah” or “Yahweh,” the true pronunciation is unknown to us. In biblical times, the name of God was uttered in private, in the Holy of Holies, by the High Priest, a single time each year as part of the Yom Kippur service. After the destruction of the Temple, the pronunciation was irretrievably lost.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow speculates that the sound of YHWH is the sound of a breath, that God is the very breath of life, that this name connects our souls (n’shamah, or literally, “breath”) with the Divine spirit. Further, it speaks to the interconnectedness of all living beings: Trees breathe out the air that we breathe in and vice versa. Others propose that YHWH combines the verb forms of “to be” or “to become,” emphasizing God’s eternality: God was, God is and God will be. Or perhaps it is that God is the force which makes all action possible, that God is the source of all being, or even that the very flow of time is itself divine.

Within our liturgy, God is called by many different names. In the Sh’ma, we use the name Eloheinu, literally “our God.” In contrast to the name Adonai, which speaks to God’s universality and unknowability, Eloheinu highlights the unique relationship between God and the Jewish people. On the High Holy Days, we call God Avinu Malkeinu, “Our Father, Our King,” which reminds us that in our moment of asking for forgiveness and compassion, God is not only a strong and just ruler but also a loving and caring parent. And in the Aleinu, we say the name Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu, “the Holy Blessed One.” We pray to a benevolent God from whom blessings flow freely like water flowing from a fountain or spring.

We acquire many names over the course of our lives, reflecting the ways we have grown and changed and the evolving roles that we play in the lives of others. In the same way, we call God by many names because we need God in many ways. We want our God to liberate us from oppression, to inspire us to greatness, to comfort us in times of trouble. Each of God’s names expresses another way to imagine how God can enter our lives.

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