Jewish Journal

What’s in a Name?

Parshat Vaera (Exodus 6:2 - 9:35)

by Rabbi Lisa Edwards

Posted on Jan. 22, 2004 at 7:00 pm

When Jews come across the biblical name for God -- spelled yod-hay-vav-hay in Hebrew -- custom teaches us to substitute the term Adonai ("my Lord"), for according to Jewish tradition those letters are the unpronounceable name of God. A rabbi professor of mine used to elicit nervous laughter from his students by attempting to pronounce yod-hay-vav-hay, attempting to speak the "unspeakable." His seemingly irreverent effort served a good purpose -- it got us thinking about the power of names and naming.

Although that name for God appears often in the Book of Genesis, it is not discussed until the Book of Exodus -- until this Torah portion, Vaera, when God says to Moses: "I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name yod-hay-vav-hay" (Exodus 6:3).

Historians tell us that it wasn't until the Second Temple period (around 2,000 years ago) that Jews stopped pronouncing yod-hay-vav-hay. Historians also tell us that the Masoretes, those scholars who standardized our Torah and added vowels, were the ones who added the vowels for Adonai to the letters yod-hay-vav-hay in order to remind us to substitute Adonai.

But how did God intend us to pronounce yod-hay-vav-hay? In these opening chapters of the Book of Shemot (meaning "names"), when God first introduces this name to Moses, God does not forbid pronouncing yod-hay-vav-hay, and there is no suggestion to pronounce it Adonai.

The impulse to make yod-hay-vav-hay something other than a shem (a name), particularly the impulse to turn it into a title -- and as gender-specific a title as Adonai -- comes neither from the text nor from God. Like so many other patriarchal and hierarchical labels for God, such as King and Father, the title Adonai comes from the worshippers rather than from the Worshipped.

In this week's portion, Vaera, and in last week's Parashat Shemot, as God establishes relationships with Moses, with the enslaved Israelites and with the Egyptians, we hear God use different names (yod-hay-vav-hay; eheyeh asher eheyeh, "I will be what I will be," Exodus 3:14; El Shaddai) at different times to different people. In so doing, God gives us permission to continue this tradition of describing and naming God, according to our comprehension, based on our own experience.

Jewish theologian Judith Plaskow, in "Standing Again at Sinai" ( Harper San Francisco, 1991), points out that we seekers of today are heirs of a long heritage. All the metaphors and symbols that Judaism has for God have come from "human attempts to speak of the experience of God who stands at the center of Jewish life. They emerge out of the Godwrestling of our ancestors and represent their efforts to name and comprehend the God they knew as with them on a long and various journey.... Traditional symbols for God thus ... provide models of a process, which we ourselves continue in seeking images of God that will be adequate for our own time."

As we do so, let's keep in mind the power of language, the tremendous role it plays in shaping our reality. It's like wearing glasses: When I put on my glasses, I can see the world better, but the world hasn't changed because I put on my glasses. What changes is the way I see the world; what changes is my relationship to the world. Similarly, calling God by different names and titles doesn't change God, it changes the way we see God, and it deepens our relationship. Consider the palpable changes in a relationship marked by descriptions, titles, terms of endearment: "You are a sweetheart," "you are my sweetheart," "Sweetheart, I want to spend the rest of my life with you." What changes is your perception; what changes is your relationship.

However carefully you make your way along this "Appellation Trail," it's not an easy one to traverse, for it is overgrown with beliefs and superstitions, emotions and politics. As Judaism continues to evolve, we can count on God to evolve with us. As we help keep Judaism vital, living, growing, so will God continue to keep the promise made to Moses so long ago to be always in process, always unpredictable: "I will be who I will be." If we were indeed created b'tselim Elokim, in God's image, then let God's own changing presentations of self in Torah be an invitation to remember that in any ongoing relationship -- with God or with our children, with one another or with one's self -- we ought to welcome every opportunity to name ourselves and speak our truths.

Lisa Edwards is rabbi at Beth Chayim Chadashim -- House of New Life -- in Los Angeles.

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