What’s in a name?

Rabbi Josef A. Davidson serves Congregation B’nai Amoona.

By Rabbi Josef A. Davidson

Whenever we encounter someone new with whom we would like to exchange names, inevitably the second question answered after, “What is your name?” is, “What do you do?” The power to name other creatures, objects and concepts was given to human beings, according to the sacred history of our Torah, directly after our creation. Naming gives power to control, to define and to distinguish.

The Torah portion for this week, Va’era, opens with God informing Moses of a name change on God’s part. To the matriarchs and patriarchs, God was known as El Shaddai, usually translated as God Almighty. This name describes God’s power, God’s ability to get things done and, especially when Shaddai is linked to the word Shaddaim (breasts), God’s ability to provide. 

In the early days this is exactly the type of God that our ancestors needed. They lived a hard, nomadic life in a time when clans and tribes were always engaged in battle over the precious resources needed to sustain themselves and their herds. A God of power, a God that was able to enable them to get things done, a God that would sustain them and fulfill their every need was what they required. Their lives were all about what they did, not who they were.

The revelation that Moses received in this week’s Parashah is that God is not solely defined by what God does. The name by which God wishes to be known now is called the Tetragrammaton, the Four-Letter Name. Since the time of the destruction of the Temple, it has not been uttered, as our tradition holds it as most sacred. 

In translation it appears often as “Lord,” which is the translation of the word most often substituted for it. However, in analyzing the Tetragrammaton, one can readily recognize that it is a form of a very special verb: the verb that means “to be.” 

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The Name itself has been defined as either the causative form of “to be,” as in “He caused [it] to be” or “He caused being,” or as the result of placing the past, present and future forms of the verb “to be” on top of each other, resulting in a mash up of “He was,” “He is” and “He will be.” Either of these led to a translation that would indicate that God, by utilizing this Name, is “Eternal.”

So, what’s in a name? To the early ancestors, God was a doer. God was defined by actions, by deeds, by vocation. Our patriarch, Jacob, when he set out on his journey from his parents’ home, even made his own fealty to God conditional upon God’s actions, not God’s presence. 

Too many of us, in answering the second question, “What do you do?” define ourselves by what we do. 

“When I am in a social situation, faced with a large crowd of people, I am [what I do, my profession], not myself,” friends have told me over the years. What we do so often provides us with a sense of self-worth, with meaning attached to our existence, with a means by which to define and be defined.

Perhaps that is why it is that Moses is introduced to a different concept of God, a God that “will be what I will be” and do what [I] will do. To conceive of God simply in terms of what God does is to place limits on the Infinite, to define the Undefinable. Rather, through Moses’ revelation, we are introduced to another Name of God that presents a totally different model, one of being in the world, not one of acting in or upon the world.

Perhaps this model is also one worth emulating. Not “What do I do?” but “Who am I?” is the question we could answer. When I am not playing the role that my profession, my vocation, my job, my deeds impose upon me, what character do I possess? What emotions do I feel? What kind of person am I?

As we will see in this week’s Torah portion, God will continue to act in Moses’ world. God will continue to exhibit the power of a God Almighty. And in the rest of the Torah, God will sustain the Israelites through 40 years of wandering in the wilderness.

However, God will not be defined solely by this role, by actions, deeds, consequences. Neither should we. For God to accomplish anything, God first needs to exist; for human beings to accomplish anything, they, too, need to exist. God seems to want Moses to know that God is more than the sum total of God’s actions or inactions. My friends, so are we!

Shabbat Shalom!