About 15 years ago, I heard a fascinating lecture by a young scholar who decried the simplistic methodology of Jewish book naming. Generally, of course, she’s right. Most biblical books are named for the first significant word in the text. Hence, we’re presently reading the book of Shmot, even though names aren’t that big an issue in this volume. She suggested that we call our Tanach: The Book of the Interventions of God. I disagree. Even though we’re entering the section of Tanach where God is most manifest, the plagues through the epiphany at Sinai, most of our Tanach is about human behavior. I suggested: Humanity: The User’s Manual. I strongly believe that Tanach is about people, but the beginning of our Torah reading gives us a brief theology lesson.
Jews, generally, don’t study theology, a discourse on THEOS (God), very much. With the tiny exception of a few mystics, most of our Torah study is about human behavior. This is, generally, because we assume that we can’t really know God (see Shmot 33:20: ‘no human can know Me and still exist’). However, God’s short speech to Moshe at the outset of our parsha is unique:
And God (ELOKIM) appeared to Moshe, and said to him: I am YHVH. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob with the name Almighty God (E-L SHA-DAI), but with My name YHVH, I did not become known to them (Shmot 6:2-3).
It’s hard to fathom what’s going on here. Rashi immediately tries to explain that God uses different names for different occasions. The name E-L SHA-DAI is used when making promises, and the name YHVH is used when fulfilling those promises. This helps somewhat, because we’re now going to witness the fulfillment of the promises made to Avraham in the Brit bein Ha’Betarim (Breishit 15:9-21). There are still problems, because the name YHVH does appear in God’s conversations with the Avot, and E-L SHA-DAI does not. Plus, we have three names for God in this little section, not just the two.
Rashi does, however, give us guidance into the right direction. It’s clear that God uses different names for different manifestations. We call these MIDDOT or Divine attributes. It’s a Midrash on last week’s pasha which bests helps us to fathom this concept:
I am called after my deeds…When I judge humanity, I am called Elo-him; when I make war, I am called Tzva-ot; when I suspend punishment for sins, I am called E-L SHA-DAI; when I display compassion, I am called YHVH (Shmot Raba 3:6).
Okay, so the names of God designate the actions of God. But what were the Avot missing? They saw, heard, experienced God in many profound ways, which we can barely imagine. What was it that the Exodus and its aftermath would display to B’NAI YISRAEL that the Avot didn’t NODA (have intimate knowledge of)?
Sidebar: In Hebrew, the verb L’DA’AT means a profound knowledge of someone or something. Rav Soloveitchik wrote, ‘L’DA’AT transcends the bounds of the abstract logos and passes over into the realm of the boundless intimate and impassioned experience where…subject and object, are one (Lonely Man of Faith, p. 32).’ For more superficial awareness we use L’HAKIR (recognize). Spouses should ‘know’ each other; friends merely ‘recognize’ each other.
Rabbeinu Bechaye helps to clarify the situation. He explains that the wonderful experiences of the Avot with God were in the category of SHODED MAZALOT, ‘plunderer of constellations’. This picturesque expression means, I believe, that they saw God as the controller of nature. God could squeeze out of natural phenomena amazing results which brought them great bounty and success. Rabbeinu Bechaye then succinctly describes what the Patriarchs missed: But My unique name, through which all existence is founded, I never caused them to experience how I create for them out of nothing (YESH MEI’AYIN, ex nihilo) totally new realities, based upon clearly publicized miracles which change the natural order of the universe.
The great rabbi is making two important distinctions between the miracles performed by God for the Patriarchs and the upcoming wonders to be experienced by B’nei Yisrael. First, the miraculous events for the Avot were relatively private as opposed to the upcoming events which would be performed on the world stage. And, secondly, God manipulated nature for the Avot, now God will create totally new realities, never before witnessed.
Don’t think that greater miracles mean greater merit. The Avot had an amazing treasury of merit. We still draw on that account every day, when we recite Shmoneh Esreh. No, instead think of it like a student who needs more attention to understand the lesson than the star pupil, who got the point immediately.
So, now you know. The names we use to call upon God should be chosen very carefully. And, even more importantly, they should reflect our great reverence and affection.