Friday, January 20, 2012

Va’eira - The Names of God

In the beginning of Parshas Va’eira, God tells Moses (Exodus 6:3), “And I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as E-l Sha-dai, and by My name Hashem[1] I did not become known to them.” As the commentaries point out, this verse is difficult to understand, as we find several times in Genesis where the name Hashem was used by the Patriarchs, and that God Himself gave this as His name. For example, in Genesis 15:7, God speaks to Abraham saying, “I am Hashem, Who took you out of Ur Kasdim, to give you this land to inherit it.” Clearly, then, this verse cannot mean that this name had been hidden from the Patriarchs.

The commentaries therefore explain that the verse does not say that God did not make the Name of Hashem known to them, but that He did not make Himself known to them through this Name. Every name of God refers to one of God’s modes of interaction with His creation. This verse teaches us that God was now entering into a fundamentally new, more direct and open, mode of interaction with mankind; that the Jewish people would come to experience God’s presence in the world in a manner that the Patriarchs had not. Although the Patriarchs certainly knew of this mode of interaction, and God had even revealed it to them in prophecy, they had never experienced it themselves.

This verse helps us understand the role that the “Names of God” plays in Jewish thought. Whether it is in our understanding of Scripture or in our prayers, a proper understanding of this concept is essential. (This concept is particularly important for a proper understanding of the teachings of kabbala.)

The most basic principle to understand is that, in Himself, God is innominate; i.e. He has no name, and, indeed, He cannot be named. The Tikkunei Zohar (17b) states, “You [God] have no knowable name.” Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin expands on this concept (Nefesh HaChaim 2:2), explaining that the actual essence of God is completely hidden from us and cannot be referred to by any name whatsoever, even Hashem. All the Divine names that we find in Scripture, or that we use in prayer, are to be understood as referring only to aspects of God’s relationship with creation.

There is a very basic dichotomy in our relationship with God. On the one hand, we strive for an intimate connection (deveikus) with God. He is our Father and our Beloved. We speak to Him in prayer, we recognize His hand in our lives, and we strive to understand and obey His will as expressed in His Torah.

On the other hand, we also recognize that God is fundamentally unknowable, that we can never even begin to understand His true nature because He is infinitely beyond all of creation. Even the highest angels have no conception of God’s true nature.

This dichotomy is fundamental to Judaism and finds expression in many aspects of Jewish practice. For example, in every blessing that we recite, we find a startling grammatical anomaly. Every blessing begins in the second person, “Blessed are You, Hashem, our God, King of the universe…”, yet it ends in the third person, “Who sanctified us with His commandments…” or “that all came to be through His word.”

This grammatical shift is done to express our recognition that, while we have a personal relationship with God in which we can speak to Him directly, yet we cannot know Him as He truly is. He reveals Himself to us through His actions, yet He is hidden from us in His essence. (ראה רבינו בחיי, כד הקמח, ברכה)

At first glance, it might seem that this recognition makes it more difficult for us to have a proper relationship with God. Even if this were true, it would not diminish the importance of this recognition, as a relationship with God that is based upon a false conception of His nature is fundamentally flawed, and if the misconception is bad enough, it may not be a relationship at all.

The truth is, however, that it is only through our recognition that God is fundamentally above and beyond any human conception that it is possible for a person to have a personal relationship with God in the first place. If God’s true nature existed within the limited and finite realm of human comprehension, then it would be simply impossible to believe that He has a personal, intense, loving relationship with every single human being.

The “Names of God” are given to us, by God, as a means for us to connect to Him. He wishes us to develop an emotional, human, relationship with Him, as our Father, our King, our Beloved. In that mode, we are expected to use these names in a human manner, as if they refer to God Himself. Yet, at the very same time, we must always remember that, in His essence, He is above and beyond any possible human understanding, and we can only know Him indirectly, through what he reveals to us in His Torah and His creation. It is in this sense that Jewish tradition speaks of the entire Torah, and indeed, all of Creation, as being made up of "the names of God."

[1] The term Hashem literally means, "the name", and is used in Jewish literature to refer to the four-lettered "personal" name of God (the Tetragrammaton).

1 comment:

David Mescheloff said...

Beautifully articulated - yishar kochakha! Please allow me to note that we human beings can achieve an inkling of insight into the dichotomy you described so well by thinking about our relationships with those human beings who are closest to us, whether parents, children, friends, or a spouse. While we know them so well and are close to them, yet in a very real way each of us is a mystery to all others, hidden "deep inside", and accessible only by means of what we tell each other and what we can observe from each other's actions.