Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Walk Article-Va'era



Rabbi David Walk


            We Jews have not been very creative over the ages in our naming practices for our great literature.  Generally, we call a book by the first significant word which appears in the text.  Clever, right?  That means that often we can't expect the title to guide the reader's expectations about the content of the work.  However, more often than you might expect it works.   For example Bamidbar, means 'In the Wilderness', and that pretty much hints at the material within.  One might have thought that the book which English readers call Exodus, was horribly named in Hebrew Shmot, which means 'Names.'  At first glance, Exodus is a great name describing the amazing Israelite departure from Egypt, while 'Names' seems like an inept attempt to describe the adventures in our book.  However, like many first impressions this analysis would be faulty.  Names are a major issue in the book.   In last week's reading the naming of Moshe is an important detail, and Moshe demands to know how God should be referred to when he addresses the nation.  Later in our saga the Jewish nation is given special names, Holy Nation and Kingdom of Priests.  Even the land of Israel gets its special designation as the Land Flowing with Milk and Honey.  But no where is this issue more critical than at the beginning of this week's Torah reading.

            Our parsha begins with the following scene, 'God spoke to Moshe, and said to him, "I am the Lord (YHWH).  I appeared to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Ya'akov with the name Almighty God, but with My name Lord (YHWH), I did not become known to them (Exodus 6:2-3).'  So names for God are very important.  But, why?  There is a famous Science Fiction story by Arthur C. Clarke called The Nine Billion names of God.  In the tale computer geeks are hired by Buddhist monks to catalogue all the names of God and once every possible name had been listed, the universe came to a quiet end.  Knowing his name gives power over Rumplestiltskin.  I don't assume such radical powers to using God's names, but many mystics, Jewish and non, do ascribe miraculous energy to these names.  There are those who believe that wonders can be performed by the correct manipulation of these names.  I've never felt comfortable with these ideas, but naming things does carry power, but of a different sort.

            There's a fascinating article by Adam Alter (whom I automatically like, because he has the same last name as the Gerrer Rebbe, anyway the article is called The Power of Names, The New Yorker, May 29, 2013) in which he demonstrates that names can affect the way feel about items, without any other knowledge.  He discussed initial stock offerings do better with more easily pronounced names and abbreviations.  He also noted that female lawyers are more likely to be appointed judges if they have masculine sounding names.   So names affect us in subliminal ways that we barely notice.  With time and experience words can carry tremendous clout and strongly affect how we understand reality.  In court when cars accidents were described as 'contact' between two cars the average observer assumed that the cars were traveling under thirty miles an hour.  However, when the accident was described as a 'smash' it was assumed that the cars were going over forty miles and hour.  All this without any other supporting information.  The same idea can be applied to our relationship with God.

            There are different expectations in a prayer addressed to God Almighty (El Shadai) than in one talking to the God of Being (YHWH).  One projects power; the other implies tranquility. These ideas are very important and the feelings they engender are very real.  Our Sages over time devised their own names for God, because we became more concerned about the third commandment (Don't take God's name in vain.).  The two most famous are Master of the Universe (Ribono Shel Olam) and The Holy One, Blessed be He (Hakadosh Baruch Hu).  At various points in our lives we have differing expectations from God.

            This idea was already understood in the Midrash over 1,500 years ago.  On the verse when God says t hat the Divine name is I Shall Be, Rabbi Abba bar Memel said, 'The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Moshe:  I is My name that you want to know?  I am called My deeds.  On occasion I'm called Almighty, Tzva'ot (Hosts), Elohim, and YHWH.  When I judge humanity, I'm called Elohim,  when I wage war against the evil I'm called Tzva'ot, when I'm decided sentence for sins I'm called Almighty, and when I display compassion on my world I'm called YHWH.

            Now we can go back to our original issue, which is:  why did the Patriarchs know God by a different name than the Jews in Egypt are going to know?  And the rule is simple:  because they are going to experience God in different ways, therefore the name for God is different.  The harder question is going to be and what do these names imply?  Fortunately our rabbis have thinking about these issues for a long time.  The standard answer is that during the Patriarchal period God was making promises for the future, and that in Egypt God would be fulfilling those pledges.  However, we're still left with a problem.  In our day and age, when we don't have a prophet getting direct communication from God, how do we know how to address God?  I don't think the answer is as complicated as one might assume.

            We must consider when we talk to God in our prayers and hearts, what is it that we really want to achieve in this communication.  Must we be saved from an oppressor?  Do we need help to find a livelihood?  Do we need compassion and love?  If we just arrange our thoughts carefully and clearly when we talk to God, we'll know what name to use.  We must resist the urge to render our prayers rote.  Talk plainly to God.  The right name will become obvious.