Vaera: Why Does God Go By Different Names?

The surprising meanings behind God’s names.

Getting to know God involves getting to know ourselves and our world…

Table for Five: Vaera

In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but by My name YHVH, I did not make myself known to them.

-Ex. 6:3

Rabbi Pinchas Winston, Thirtysix.org

What’s in a name? Everything, when it comes to names of God. For the longest time, Bible critics have claimed that the usage of different names for God is proof that the Torah has more than one author. But that’s like saying that because someone has a first and middle name proves they have two sets of parents. You don’t have to be a Jewish mystic to know that all of the names belong to God and that they were recorded by the same writer, Moses. God told him exactly which name to use.

For example, the main name of God is spelled Yud, then Heh, then Vav, and then Heh. We don’t say the name as written because it is too holy to be used in non-Temple times. Instead, we pronounce it Adona”i, and refer to it as “Shem Hovayah,” which uses the same letters in a different order. The Shem Hovayah alludes to God’s timelessness and means, “He was, He is, and He always will be.” It is also a name used when God intervenes in history overtly, what we call miracles.

The Hebrew word for a miracle is “neis,” which means “banner,” because it proclaims, “God was here.” Therefore, the Shem Hovayah also alludes to God’s trait of mercy, which is the reason for any miracle that may happen. The Shem Hovayah is compared to a tree trunk, and the other names of God are like branches growing off it. And this only begins the discussion.

Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn, B’nai David-Judea Congregation

Why does God use different names? Pesikta Zutarta teaches that God’s names reveal how God manifests at a given moment. Kel Sha-ddai is God’s name when He provides help, as He did with our forefathers. Tzeva-ot is God’s name when He is waging war. Elokim is God’s name when He is exercising judgment. So what is the role of the name ‘Hashem’ here?

Traditionally, ‘Hashem’ indicates God’s mercy, the fitting name to embrace and redeem an enslaved, brokenhearted people. Exodus in Hebrew is ‘Shemot’ (names). We begin with the names of our ancestors who went down to Egypt and the slavery that ensued. And in the midst of redemption, God reveals His shemot. Names provide dignity and direction. When parents name children, names are a blessing for a life ahead, for dreams and commitments. And psychologically, when we give voice to an emotion, struggle, or need– naming it– we begin to shape our understanding and next steps. It is not easy to recognize God’s role in our lives, but here God gives Moshe a hint about how to find Him when we need Him most. By using a specific name for God in our prayers, we can call on that Divine attribute. And sometimes by stepping back to observe our situation with humility and faith, we can see a name of God that we have overlooked. God uses His names intentionally, often before we understand their meaning. What name of God do you need to utter most right now?

Yoni Troy, Educator, Beit-Hatzayar

Moses is frustrated. He sacrificed so much, only to have his efforts backfire.

Moses challenges G-d. G-d’s response suggests that the G-d revealed to the world, through the forefathers, so far, is nothing compared to the true Divine might.

This story has two elements I connect to. First, the Bible is not afraid to show that the greats of our people were humans too, who had ups and downs in their levels of success and their faith.

Secondly, it teaches us never to lose hope. Since leaving the army, I have been working with at-risk youth. A 14-year-old student I work with pulled a knife on a kid in a playground recently, and was arrested for attempted murder. When I first heard of the event, I felt despair. Yet, trusting my Jewish values, I didn’t give up. I kept working with him and believing in him.

Ultimately, the arrest took him down a peg and helped him realize the consequences of his actions. This event has become a cornerstone in shaping his future. Fortunately, because the incident happened at such a young age, the repercussions for him are less severe.

Now, I realize the blessing disguised in the incident – and am grateful that, learning from Moses, I kept hoping. While this example is extreme, this outlook has long served the Jewish people. If we all keep hoping and persisting, our day-to-day life will be easier, and we learn how to deal with more extreme events in a healthier way.

Denise Berger, Freelance writer

Learning a foreign language, among the first ten phrases is always a version of “What’s your name?” or “My name is…”. The exchange of names is at the foundation of human connections, a statement that “I have an interest in you as a person, beyond this moment.” Even for interactions that really do last only a moment, like checking a bag at the airport, sharing names creates investment; the porter’s nametag engenders not only familiarity but accountability and security.

When Hashem speaks to Moshe in this passage, He is solidifying a relationship which builds upon the bonds with Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yakov (all specifically named). Rashi comments that G-d is tacitly acknowledging that His promises to the previous generations are yet unfulfilled.

Soon after these words are spoken, Moshe and Aharon will have the famous “Let my people go!” conversation with Pharaoh. And when Pharaoh’s heart turns to stone, the plagues will begin: blood, frogs, lice, and so on. Seven of the ten plagues are in this week’s parsha.

To paraphrase the U.S. military, the Egyptian plagues were the ultimate shock and awe campaign. But before any of that begins is the relationship. The Jewish G-d, Creator of the Universe, is not like Zeus or Thor or other ancient deities, hurling thunderbolts around for the sake of sheer power. Hashem acts out of love for His people. His actions are premised in the context of a sacred and eternal relationship, and the fulfillment of His promise.

Erez Safar, Torah/Kabbalah columnist lightofinfinite.com

We learn from this pasuk that there are levels to revelation. Hashem tells Moshe that he did not reveal the full vision of redemption to the Patriarchs.

Rashi explains that even without seeing this full vision, the Avot did not question Hashem’s compassion and devoted themselves to Godliness.

Reb Natan of Breslov explains that Hashem is telling us to be like the Patriarchs, not to despair when life’s challenges emerge, because we cannot see the full picture of Hashem’s intentions. We are in exile, physically and spiritually, living in a time when Hashem’s full light is hidden from us. But we are always capable of tying our awareness to our spiritual Promised Land. It’s our emunah in Hashem’s compassion that can allow us to see the good and do good with what we are given.

Rebbe Carlebach says that we learn from this passage how to bring Godly awareness into our everyday lives. He notes that Hashem says he appeared to each of the Patriarchs as individuals– to Avraham alone, then Yitzchak, then Yakov– revealing Himself to each of them in the way that was best suited for their growth into Godliness. So, we learn that in order to reveal Hashem in the world, we need to uncover the pieces of holiness that are in each of us, one by one.

Every action, especially those we take toward our fellow humans, is an opportunity for holy revelation and redemption.

With thanks to Rabbi Pinchas Winston, Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn, Yoni Troy, Denise Berger and Erez Safar

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