Last week in our Torah portion, God uses one of my favorite divine names: Ehyeh asher ehyeh, “I will be what I will be.” But this week in Va-eira, God switches up the names that Moses and the Israelite people might know God by. God is yud, hey, vav, hey (which we tend to pronounce as “Adonai,” but we really don’t know what it should sound like). God is El Shaddai. Throughout our Torah and our tradition, God is known by many names, to many people.
Names have a lot of power – in our tradition and in our world. Names can be contextual, changing the way we behave, and the way others react based on which version of our name is used. Names can be given or chosen. Names can by ways to individuate or separate, and names can be ways to connect or honor. Names can have many meanings and communicate many things. So, then, what does it mean that God also has many names to go by?
Does our relationship to God change depending on names? When God is referred to as HaRachaman (the merciful one), does God behave differently than when God is referred to as HaDin (The Judge)? But even more than that, does our referring to God change God’s behavior or does God’s behavior change the name we use? Which is cause and which is effect?
In case you couldn’t tell, I have a lot of questions about God. The God described in the Torah, the God described by the prophets, the God described by the sages of old and the sages of now…all of these variations of God clearly had meaning to those people and generations. What is the God that has meaning to me and my generation?
Sometimes it’s hard to read portions like ours and not feel jealous of an ancestor or prophet, someone who had a clear and convincing interaction with God. Moses sees the burning bush and sees God. The Israelites and Egyptians alike see God’s power and effect in each of the plagues. Miracles and visions have “proven” God to so many people in our tradition. People who have experienced God in that way seem to know God and how to refer to God. If we don’t have those experiences, how are we to know God at all?
Perhaps this is why I like the God’s name from last week so much. Ehyeh asher ehyeh is vague enough that it fits my experience of God, and it is open enough to feel like whatever my experience might be, it is still as valid as anyone else’s more tangible experience.
But I have another name for God that I wish we could use more often. If the way we refer to God is the way we want to experience God, than I want to call God “HaShe’ehlah,” “The Question.” Even if I were to find a miraculous eternal burning bush, I don’t know if I’d trust what I was seeing. Rather, I think I would question it; I think I would analyze it; I think I would push to discover more than just what my eyes see. And the truth is, I walk through the world and go through my life questioning a lot. I find meaning in the process of investigation, challenging what we think we know, and uncovering what we never knew would bring enhanced divinity into our lives.
If God were the inspiration for or the source of a question, how might your relationship with God change? Would you understand yourself or your Judaism differently? Would you be more or less inclined to search out the questions that are a part of life? How would Moses’ life have been different if God had called God’s-self HaShe’elah?
Each of us has the ability to change our relationship with and understanding of God by changing the words we use to refer to God. Try an experiment, start a new practice, change the words you use when talking about God. See what happens. Let’s discover a new side of God together.