Who Is God? Parashat Va'era 26 Tevet 5778

by Rabbi Yonatan Sadoff

Reading the weekly Torah portion as a holy text, a sacred vessel that offers a path to God, rather than as a history or story book, raises important questions: who is God and what is God's real name?

This week's reading begins with a perplexing verse in which God speaks to Moses, mentioning not one but two of God's names:

Shemot (Exodus) Chapter 6

3 and I (God) appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as  El Shadai (God Almighty), but by My name YHWH (the ineffable name of God) I was not known to them.

שמות פרק ו פסוק ג

וָאֵרָא אֶל אַבְרָהָם אֶל יִצְחָק וְאֶל יַעֲקֹב בְּאֵל שַׁדָּי וּשְׁמִי יְקֹוָק לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם: 

The verse seems to be saying that God appeared to the forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as (or by the name of) El Shadai, but that they did not know God by a far more essential name,  YHWH. This name is known as the tetragrammaton, the four-letter Hebrew name made up of the same letters that comprise the words "past-present-future" -- haya, hoveh, eheyeh; it is also referred to as the ineffable name, because it is a name so holy that it is forbidden to be pronounced. If these are both names of the one true God, what is the significance of each of these names? 

Before addressing the deeper question of God's essence, we must first deal with the simpler question: did the forefathers literally not know God by His ineffable (and primary) name YHWH ? Consider the following verse:

Bereishit (Genesis) Chapter 15:
ז  וַיֹּאמֶר, אֵלָיו:  אֲנִי יְהוָה, אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאוּר כַּשְׂדִּים--לָתֶת לְךָ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת, לְרִשְׁתָּהּ.

7 And He (God) said unto him (Abraham): I am YHWH that brought thee out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give you this land as an inheritance.

It seems that Abraham was, in fact, explicitly informed by God that His name is YHWH! This apparent contradiction in the text bothered many commentators.  

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, France, 1040-1105, biblical and talmudic commentator) emphasizes a more exact reading of the Hebrew verse. The Torah does not state, "I [God] did not make myself known to the forefathers as YHWH," but rather, "I [God] was not known to them [the forefathers] as YHWH." In other words, God did inform the forefathers of His name YHWH, but they did not know, recognize or understand that name. Why not?

Rashi clarifies that even though the forefathers had been informed of God's name, YHWH, they did not know the meaning of that name; that is, they did not know the aspect or attribute of God represented by that name. It seems, then, that the forefathers only knew or worshiped God according to the aspect/attribute indicated by the name El Shadai

We can try to understand this situation through our own experience of knowing what something is called, but not knowing anything meaningful of what it really is or its function. For example, suppose that your auto mechanic mentions your hydraulic booster unit, even pointing to it in your engine! Yet, you have no idea what it is or what is its function. To you it is just a word or a thing with no intrinsic meaning! If you want to understand the function of this device, you have to ask the mechanic. Some commentators suggest that this is exactly why the forefathers didn't "know" the meaning of the name YHWH -- because they never asked God.

Nehama Leibowitz (Germany/Israel, 1905-1997, biblical scholar and commentator) explains how God's many names may be understood. She writes:

We cannot perceive the actual essence of the Godhead [the essence of God's divinity]... We can only perceive him through His manifestations in the world, through his deeds as they impinge on us (Studies in Shemot, p. 133).

In other words, we may not be able to grasp God's true essence, but we can understand something about God's attributes, His ways or deeds. Each name expresses one of those attributes. 

Leibowitz bases her commentary on an ancient midrash:

Exodus Rabbah 3.6: “And God said to Moses… [‘I am that I am’]” [Exod 3:14].

Said R. Abba b. Memel: The Holy One blessed be He said to Moses: Do you wish to know my name? It is according to my actions that I am called: sometimes I am called “Almighty God” (El Shadai); “Hosts” (Tzeva’ot); “God” (Elohim), or “He who Is” (YHWH). When I judge my creatures I am called Elohim; when I wage war against evildoers I am called Tzeva'ot. When I suspend the sins of a person [from punishing him] I am called El Shadai; and when I have compassion upon my world, I am called YHWH, for that Name is none other than the attribute of compassion.
According to the above midrash, the name El Shadai is associated with the midah or attribute of Chesed (undeserved forgiveness or mercy), whereas YHWH is associated with the attribute of 
Rachamim (compassion). Compassion consists of a delicate balance between strict justice and absolute loving kindness; it is, therefore, deserved in some sense

Though perhaps not consistent in all cases, I offer examples of this distinction between the names El Shadai and YHWH, as explained in the aforementioned midrashThe name El Shadai appears in Genesis 43, when Joseph's brothers are forced to return to Egypt and bring their brother Benjamin with them in order to procure rations during the drought in Canaan. Their father Jacob invokes the name of God El Shadai, who forgives the undeserving. 

Bereishit / Genesis 43

11. And their father Israel said unto them...and El Shadai (the Lord Almighty) [may he] give you mercy before the man (Joseph), that he may release unto you your other brother (Shimon) and Benjamin. 

We know that Joseph's brothers are not deserving of forgiveness for throwing him into the pit and selling him as a slave. It is, therefore, appropriate that Jacob prays to this name of God (this aspect or attribute of undeserved mercy) for the sake of his sons.

The midrash characterizes the ineffable name YHWH as the attribute of compassion. In our tradition,
Rachamim stands in stark contrast to the undeserved divine forgiveness associated with the name El Shadai and constitutes, rather, compassion for the innocent. This is best illustrated by the compassion that God displays toward the Israelite slaves in Egypt. God resolves to free the Israelites from bondage. It is important to note that the compassion required to save one individual or group of individuals necessitates rendering harsh judgment or bringing others to justice, often causing them harm (as in the suffering of the Egyptians that accompanies the liberation of the Israelites).

The distinction between these two names can be grasped by seeing it as an evolving relationship with God or a more  mature understanding of the divine. The attribute of El Shadai is merciful even when it requires Him to dispense with justice. The attribute of YHWH, of compassion, must be both merciful as well as just. 

So, who is God? One God with multiple names, representing His many different attributes or worldly manifestations. We can know God through His actions or influence in the world, even though we cannot fully apprehend God's true essence. Another important take-away is that, sometimes, we need God to be there for us in a very personal way or according to a particular attribute or name, whether it is support, love or protection; and sometimes all we need is some divine compassion. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yonatan        


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