This is one of the more profound theological questions. To be able to name something or someone is to have a specific relationship to it or them, even a form of control. One can call out not just “Hey, You!” but “Hey, David!” or whatever, and expect some form of response. By using a name one potentially opens a dialogue. It is, therefore, no coincidence that most prayers begin with “Baruch Atah – Something.” “Blessed are You…”and then a Name.
The problem is: The Name. What is the name, what can we use to address God, what does it mean?
In Exodus 3:14, God has refused to answer Moses directly, saying simply, “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh”, “I am Who I Am”—or even “I Will Be whom I Will Be”. So no name for God, or?
We have the Four-Letter Name, the ‘Tetragrammaton’ which is used at many places in the Torah for God’s name. Traditionally, one reads instead of the consonants ‘YHVH’ “Adonai” – but this is only a tradition because we have to say something. The fact is that No-One actually knows. Which makes it theology, not physics.
At the outset of this parasha (Ex. 6:3) God simply tells Moses, “I am the same God who appeared under a different name to your ancestors”. That’s a bit of a relief, because we can learn from here that God has not only one name and that there are more ways to encounter God. And it opens up a range of other possibilities when God appears but is described as something or someone else; it leaves the gender issue open; it allowed the rabbis to determine whether different names indicated different qualities—such as justice or mercy. It allows modern theologians to discuss whether ‘God’ and ‘Allah’ are the same, it allows archaeologists to place bits of inscription with ‘Shaddai’, and it allows translators to find alternative words like ‘Lord’ or ‘The Eternal’ or ‘The Creator’, and so on. But being honest, No-One knows, God’s name remains a secret for us.
In the end, I suppose that what is important is that we pray, that we say ‘Baruch Atah’, Blessed are you – that we open a dialogue regularly—and that God knows who God is, and will listen, and may respond.
– Rabbi Adrian M Schell (Source: Rabbi W Rothschild on Vaera)
Torah Reading for Shabbat Vaera
Exodus 6:2-9:35 (Reading Ex 7:1-29; Plaut p.384; Hertz p.235); M’varchim Chodesh Sh’vat.
Haftarah: Ezekiel 28:25-29:21 (Plaut p.401; Hertz p.244)
The Torah Study with Rabbi Schell continues this Shabbat, 09 January at 08h45
“The Prayers of our Siddur”– class with Rabbi Schell resumes on the 21 Janurary at 18h00 to 19h30 (Foyer).
Podcast of Rabbi Schell’s weekly Sermons Tuesdays on Radio Today (10h30) or: http://goo.gl/LsHQrY.