Vaera: Listening for a new name
January 05, 2019
וָאֵרָ֗א אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֛ם אֶל־יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֖ב בְּאֵ֣ל שַׁדָּ֑י וּשְׁמִ֣י יְהוָ֔''ה לֹ֥א נוֹדַ֖עְתִּי לָהֶֽם׃
“I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El-Shaddai, but My Name יהו׳׳ה I did not make known to them.” (Exodus 6:3)
So what? What is Torah trying to tell us here in this verse from this week's Torah portion? What is this verse really about?
We could read this verse as the text’s attempt to paper over an inconsistency. Our names for God change over the course of Torah, from our earliest ancestors to later ones like Moses. El-Shaddai is an older name in the strata of our sacred text, and יהו׳׳ה is a later one. A historical-critical reading uses those different names to show that Torah was written by different authors at different times. We could read this verse as an editorial attempt to smooth that out.
We could read it through the lens of what each of these divine Names means. El-Shaddai can be rendered as “God of Enoughness,” or even “The Breasted God,” God of nurturance and sustenance. יהו׳׳ה seems to be some kind of permutation of the verb “to be.” Maybe this verse comes to show us that in our spiritual infancy God was a Mother figure. As our people are growing up, spiritually, maybe we’re ready to handle a God-concept that’s more existential.
Whether we’re inclined to read it through a historical lens, or through a close-reading / etymology lens, we can always choose to read it through a spiritual lens. Spiritually, here’s what this verse offers me this year: God takes on different Names at different times. Our work is to open ourselves to the new name that will help us reach the land of promise. It was true of our mythic ancestors at this moment in the Exodus story, and it’s true of us here and now, today.
In last week’s Torah portion, at the bush that burned but was not consumed, God introduced God’s-self to Moses as אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה, “I Am Becoming What I Am Becoming.” אהיה, “I will be” or “I Am Becoming,” comes from the same root as the name יהו׳׳ה. That Name can’t be directly translated, but it seems to imply something about the nature of being and becoming itself. God is ever-changing. And we, made in the divine image, are always becoming, too.
“Your ancestors knew Me under one name, but here’s a new one,” God tells us. Sometimes we need to let go of an old Name, an old chapter, in order to be ready for a new one. For instance, from House of Israel and Chevra Chai Adom, the two nascent Jewish communities in early North Adams, into Congregation Beth Israel. We remember and honor our community’s earlier names in its earlier incarnation. As part of our history, they will accompany us into our future.
And sometimes the work lies in learning to balance the old name and the new one. For instance, from Jacob to Israel, “the Heel” to “the Godwrestler.” Israel is the spiritual ancestor for whom our people is named -- we are the Godwrestlers, the ones named after our willingness to grapple with the Holy! And yet, even once Jacob becomes known as Israel, Torah uses both names for him, reminding us of the need to integrate who we’ve been with who we’re becoming.
Sometimes a name stays the same, while the inner essence changes and grows. When my son was born my name didn’t change, but my soul changed. Or maybe my soul grew more fully into who I had always been becoming, on some deep-down level I couldn’t understand until that change came to pass. And: when I became a rabbi I acquired a new name to live up to and live into, but I didn’t lose the name given to me at birth. I’m both Rabbi and Rachel.
“Each of us has a name,” writes the Israeli poet Zelda, “given by the seasons, and given by our blindness.” What new name might be unfolding for each of us as we move deeper into this season? What name do we receive as a result of our blindness -- what we are we blind to, about ourselves or about each other? What do we need to learn to see about who we are, about who we can choose to become, about how we can choose to become?
“I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El-Shaddai, but My Name יהו׳׳ה I did not make known to them.” Until now. At this moment in our people’s story, on the cusp of the Exodus from the Narrow Place toward the Land of Promise, God gives us a new name for God’s-self, a name that hints at becoming and at being itself. God says: you used to know me in one way, but open your eyes and see that I am more than what you knew. I am Becoming itself.
This week’s Torah portion invites us to ask: what’s the new Name of God that’s being revealed to us now? What’s the new possibility, the new identity, the new growth, the new becoming that we can vision-forth in this moment that was never possible before? This isn’t “just” about God. It’s about us, too, as we grow and change. What could we be becoming? What could our community be becoming, if we could open ourselves to who the future is calling us to be?
This is the d'varling I offered this morning at Congregation Beth Israel. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)