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January 03, 2003 - Image 44

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2003-01-03

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Torah Portion

The Search For God's Name
Defines Our Human Limits

we do or say, understand or believe,
the Infinite Creator will always be.
Moses is then instructed to use this
name" when he goes down into
Egypt, when he approaches Pharaoh
and the Israelites. But Moses would
never have identified God as "I will
be" — he would have announced the
name" of the God of Abraham as,
his week's portion opens
"He will be that which He will be," or
with God's announcement
"He will be" for short, which is yeh-
to Moses: "By my name
yeh, spelled YHYH.
YHVH, I had not before
But because that word is a com-
been known." (Exodus 6:3).
monly spoken form of the verb "to
Translating that name has long
be," it would have to be dis-
been a stumbling block for
tinguished from the unique
Bible editors, commentators
name of the Divine. In
and preachers. Jewish tradi-
English, we make that des-
tion is reluctant to attempt
ignation by capitalizing the
even a pronunciation, using
"H," or even the whole
any number of name-replace-
word to read "HE will be."
ments whenever "YHVH"
Hebrew does not allow for
appears in the prayer book or
that distinction, and so per-
Scripture (most common is
haps we chose a different
Adonai, a Hebrew variant of
way to make the distinction.
"my Lord," which is why -
Perhaps Hebrew tradition
many English Bibles render
simply extended the third
"YHVH" as "Lord" in their
letter, yag into a vov. The
Special to the
result was a "word" that was
I question, though,
not a word, but an easily
whether those four letters
recognizable reminder that
were originally understood as the
"he" was really "HE." It is reasonable
Divine Name, for as I read the rele-
that the verse in this week's portion, in
vant verses from Exodus, "YHVH" is
which YHVH is proclaimed as "My
descriptive rather than denominative.
name" (Exodus 6:3) is the last stage in
Last week, in Chapter 3 of Exodus,
the Israelite development of assigning
standing at the burning bush, Moses
a "name" to the un-nameable and
wants to know by what name God
unknowable Deity.
should be called when he goes back to
Our modern desire to vocalize
Egypt. The response from the bush is
YHVH as an actual name is an indica-
unexpected. Moses is given not a
tion of our own human need to quan-
name, but a description: eh-heh-yeh
tify and qualify the Deity. But because
ashen eh-heh-yeh, "I will be that-which
finite knowing cannot encompass infi-
I will be" (Exodus 3:14). And the voice
nite knowledge, Jewish tradition
continues, you can just tell them " Eh-
reminds us that when we attempt to
heh-yeh I will be" has sent you!
vocalize the name, we are violating the
Personal names carry in them the
original intent of YHVH.
ultimate and complete essence of one's
The lesson for us found in the
unique being. Jewish tradition under-
Book of Exodus is that any definitive
stands the Infinite Creator to be, by
search for the Divine is really more a
definition, beyond human knowing.
description of our own human limits.
How then can we know the Divine
Ultimately, all we can know, and all
we need to know, is that God will
But knowing that we cannot
always be what God will always be. 0
"name" the Deity does not deter us
from wanting to! Each of us, like
Moses at the bush, struggles to define
— to knOw — the authentic and
authoritative Infinite Creator. Like us,
What different aspects of the
Moses wants to know the name, but
Divine do our substitute-names
the voice responds with "I will be that
describe? In translating Torah, do
which I will be" ("I will be" for short).
you have a preferable designation
God responds to Moses (and to us)
for YHVH? Why do you sup-
saying: God will always be what God
pose, it is so important for peo-
always was and is. Regardless of what
ple to know God's name?
Joseph Klein is rabbi of Temple

Shabbat Vayera:
Exodus 6:2-9:35;
Numbers 28:9-15
Isaiah 66:1-24

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