Rabbi Steven Pik-Nathan for Jewish Reconstructionist Communities
What's in a name?
"What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet!" So wrote William Shakespeare centuries ago in "Romeo and Juliet." Today's parashah, Vayera, challenges this concept with regard to the Divine. The parashah begins with God saying to Moshe, "I am YHWH; and I appeared to Avraham, Yitzhak and Ya'akov as 'El Shaddai', but my name YHWH I did not make known to them."
It is clear in these opening lines that there is a great deal contained in a name. A name has power. A name means something. A name is more than just a symbol. God did not make God's self known to even the first patriarchs by God's name. Rather, God only made known one of God's many "other" names (a
Divine nom de plume, as it were) El Shaddai. El Shaddai is usually translated as "God Almighty" and YHWH, the four letter name of God (the tetragrammaton) is usually pronounced in Hebrew as 'adonai' (my lord) or 'ha-shem' (the Name). According to tradition the correct pronunciation of this name has been lost. Even when it was known the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) only spoke it on Yom Kippur while he was standing in the Holy of Holies in the sanctuary or the Temple in Jerusalem. This name contained that much power! But what is this name?
Most scholars believe that it is a form of the verb "to be." Others say that it is also the sound of the breath, both human and divine, which is the source of life. Ultimately, we do not know, and I believe that this is as it should be. For YHWH by any other name is still YHWH.
In his book God is a Verb Rabbi David Cooper writes about God as being a process not an object or subject. Drawing on the teachings of Reb Zalman Schacter-Sholomi, Cooper writes about the verb "God-ing" as opposed to the noun "God." Reb Zalman, writes Cooper, "explains that the kind of verb that represents God-ing is different from the ones we have in our ordinary language. Most of our verbs are considered transitive, which require a direct object, or intransitive, which do not. He suggests that God-ing is a mutually interactive verb, one which entails an interdependency between two subjects, each being the object for the other" (God is a Verb, p. 69). The example Cooper provides is communication. One may be speaking and yet if no one is listening is there actually any communication occurring? Yet the question remains, where does this leave us with regard to God - especially as Reconstructionists?