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What's in a name?

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet!" So wrote William Shakespeare centuries ago in "Romeo and Juliet." Today's parashah, Vayera, challenges this concept with regard to the Divine. The parashah begins with God saying to Moshe, "I am YHWH; and I appeared to Avraham, Yitzhak and Ya'akov as 'El Shaddai', but my name YHWH I did not make known to them."

It is clear in these opening lines that there is a great deal contained in a name. A name has power. A name means something. A name is more than just a symbol. God did not make God's self known to even the first patriarchs by God's name. Rather, God only made known one of God's many "other" names (a
Divine nom de plume, as it were) El Shaddai. El Shaddai is usually translated as "God Almighty" and YHWH, the four letter name of God (the tetragrammaton) is usually pronounced in Hebrew as 'adonai' (my lord) or 'ha-shem' (the Name). According to tradition the correct pronunciation of this name has been lost. Even when it was known the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) only spoke it on Yom Kippur while he was standing in the Holy of Holies in the sanctuary or the Temple in Jerusalem. This name contained that much power! But what is this name?

Most scholars believe that it is a form of the verb "to be." Others say that it is also the sound of the breath, both human and divine, which is the source of life. Ultimately, we do not know, and I believe that this is as it should be. For YHWH by any other name is still YHWH.

In his book God is a Verb Rabbi David Cooper writes about God as being a process not an object or subject. Drawing on the teachings of Reb Zalman Schacter-Sholomi, Cooper writes about the verb "God-ing" as opposed to the noun "God." Reb Zalman, writes Cooper, "explains that the kind of verb that represents God-ing is different from the ones we have in our ordinary language. Most of our verbs are considered transitive, which require a direct object, or intransitive, which do not. He suggests that God-ing is a mutually interactive verb, one which entails an interdependency between two subjects, each being the object for the other" (God is a Verb, p. 69). The example Cooper provides is communication. One may be speaking and yet if no one is listening is there actually any communication occurring? Yet the question remains, where does this leave us with regard to God - especially as Reconstructionists?

It is easy to use this language within a mystical kabbalistic framework. One need only to look at the title of two of Abraham Joshua Heschel's classic 20th century works of Jewish theology God in Search of Man and [Man's] Quest for God to see this paradigm. Kabbalah and Hassidism, as well as classic rabbinic texts, are filled with references to God's need for us as well as our need for God. God cannot be God without someone to be 'God-ing' with. That is why God created human beings. Yet the idea of God "needing" human beings or even God and human beings "communicating" or "relating" to one another at first blush seems antithetical to the theology of classical Reconstructionism. According to Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan and those who followed in his Reconstructionist footsteps, God is "the power that makes for salvation." God is seen as a force in the universe that enables us to strive to better our lives, the lives of all human beings and the entire world. It is difficult to image communicating or relating to a power. That is the reason many people ask why and how Reconstructionists pray. But to state the matter in these terms, or to ask this particular question, is both to misunderstand the God concept of Reconstructionism (as I see it, at least) and to limit the concept of both God and human being. Both the term 'God' and 'human' are symbols that represent something far beyond that which our limited minds can comprehend. That is the beauty of God's 'true' name YHWH.

If this name is indeed a form of the verb 'to be' (and for the moment let us agree with rabbis and scholars throughout the generations and assume that this is the case) then God is a verb or a process. The concept of God-ing, therefore, is not a radical break from tradition as one might imagine, but instead a rediscovering of one of the true natures of God (of which there are many).

In last week's parashah, Shemot, God says to Moses at the Burning Bush to tell the people when they ask who sent him that God is "Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh." This is often translated as "I am that I am." However, anyone who knows Hebrew also knows that there is no present tense form of the verb "to be." There is no way to say I am . anything. I am not a writer, but I am a person in the process of writing. I am not a parent, but I am a person in the process of parenting. I am not a rabbi, but I am a person in the process of rabbi-ing. I am not a person, but I am in the process of person-ing. God is not God, but God is in the process of God-ing.

It is true that one could translate "Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh" as "I will be, what I will be," but even that is not correct. For in Biblical Hebrew there is no future tense or past tense. There is only the perfect and the imperfect. The phrase that God speaks to Moses is in the imperfect. It is not yet perfected, nor do we know if it ever will be. God is always in the process of God-ing, just as we are always in the process of person-ing. The entire universe is always in the process of perfect-ing itself.

The Tanakh/Bible and other texts may refer to God as perfect, but according to the kabbalists, this refers to the Ein Sof, the limitless one, the utterly unknowable aspect of God. So there is perfection within God and yet the God that we experience in the world, "Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh," is imperfect. It is always God-ing. The God that we experience in the world is always in the process of becoming, just as we are as beings (or processes) created in God's image.

You may still wonder how this mystical concept of the "knowable" and "unknowable" or the "perfect" and "imperfect" aspects of God relates to the more rationalistic ideas of Reconstructionism. To find an answer we need to return to Kaplan's definition of God as "the power that makes for salvation."

For years I have used the analogy of an electrical current and a light bulb to describe how God and human beings interact. We are all aware that a powerful electrical current runs through the wires in the walls, ceilings and floors of our homes, even though we cannot see it. The same current connects to the wires, cables and conduits that run underneath our cities and towns and ultimately connects all of us to a power grid that connects to a power source.

We are also aware that we can possess the most beautiful lamp with the most powerful light bulb we have ever seen, but if we do not plug it into the source of electricity and flip the switch it will not give off any light.

The analogy is a simple one. Of course, we are the light bulbs and God is the power source. God may be the power that enables us to work towards the perfection of the world, but the source is useless unless we connect with it. The relationship is essential. There can be no God-ing unless there is people-ing in the world. God is superfluous at best and irrelevant at worst if we do not connect our human process to the Divine process.

I believe the converse to be true as well. For, as a person who believes in the power of God-ing, I must state that I ultimately believe that even a person who a good and kind and who works for the betterment of the world, is missing something if that person is not connected to the divine process in the world. I would not go so far as to say that it is impossible to be a good person without belief in God, but I would say that it is difficult, if not impossible, to be a person working towards perfection (to be in the process of person-ing) without connecting to the Divine in the world (the process of God-ing) - even if one does not realize or acknowledge (or believe) that that is what one is doing at the time! Often it is not until after the fact - perhaps even many years later - that a person is able to see the role that the Divine played in his/her life at any given time.

To continue the analogy, connecting to the God-ing process then connects us through the series of spiritual circuits and conduits to all others who are also part of this process, as well as to all of the natural world, whether human or not. In mystical terms, this is the meaning of the phrase "YHWH Ehad" - God is One - which we say twice daily in our prayers when we chant the Sh'mah. We are not merely stating that there is one God. Rather, we are stating, as I emphasize most weeks at services, that God is the One that connects everyone and everything to each other. As a kabbalistic Reconstructionist (what would Kaplan say to that!) I believe that this is the meaning of "God is the power that makes for salvation."

By connecting to God and to others we work toward perfecting our imperfect selves, God and world. That is our task, just as it was Moses's task when he returned to Egypt to free his people. May we continue to recognize the process and to connect with self, God and others as we continue the constant task of becoming.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah