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Two Minutes of Torah

>Two Minutes of Torah: Shemot (Exodus 3:1-22) – God has a name

>Growing up in my orthodox Jewish primary school, the word God was never written on the board, on handouts, or anywhere in the school; it was always G-d. It was as though the three letters G-O-D written together had a certain sacredness, which meant that we were never able to write it down ourselves. And for many years of my life I would only write G-d. I imagine that it was at some point in my youth movement days with RSY-Netzer when I began to question why I was unable to write down G-O-D. It seems that it originates with the sacredness of the Hebrew name for God, which is Yod-Hay and Vav-Hay (even there I feel I can’t place the letters together).

The Hebrew name of God, which we read as Adonai, is considered so sacred that it is not written or read, and in Orthodox circles it is referred to as Adonai in prayer and Hashem (The Name) or Adoshem when referred to in study. The sacredness of this name is such that when using Hebrew letters for numbers: aleph = 1, bet = 2, yud = 10, etc. the number fifteen is not yud-hay (10+5) it is tet-vav (9+6) and sixteen is not yud-vav (10+6) it is tet-zayin (9+7). This significance is transferred to the word God, which is not a sacred name, it is not even a translation of this word; it is the English word which is used to refer to the Divine.

In this week’s Torah portion we gain an insight into the name of God, when Moses is first introduced to the Hebrew Deity. After witnessing the miracle of the burning bush (Exodus 3:2-4), and having been instructed; ‘I will send you to Pharaoh, that you may bring forth my people the children of Israel out of Egypt’ (Exodus 3:10). Moses’ first concern is with his inadequacy for the task which God has set before him, a worry which recurs throughout the beginning of Moses’ story. However, his second question is about God’s name; after claiming that he has been sent by the God of their ancestors, Moses imagines that the people will say: ‘What is his name, what shall I say to them?’ (Exodus 3:13).

Before considering God’s answer it is a fascinating concern for Moses to have. Why does he imagine that the Israelites’ first question will be about the name of God? Moses appears to imagine that knowledge of the name of God will be the test which the people will place before him, seeking proof that he truly is God’s messenger. Knowledge of someone’s name suggests a level of knowledge about that person, and it appears that in the case of the Divine it works in a similar way.

God’s enigmatic answer to Moses is: ‘Ehyeh asher ehyeh’ (Exodus 3:14), which can most accurately be translated as ‘I will be that I will be’. It is not really a name in the conventional sense, God does not say ‘My name is Yud-Hay and Vav-Hay’; offering something which appears to be more of a designation than an actual name. God follows this by saying: ‘You shall say to the people of Israel, I WILL BE has sent me to you’ (Exodus 3:14).

At first glance this may appear frustrating as we seek to know the true name of God. However, there is something very powerful about the designation ‘I will be that I will be’. God cannot be confined to a single name, and simply is, God exists as the ‘I Will Be’ to be referred to by various peoples in whatever language, and with whatever name they see fit. In England, when we talk about the Divine we use the word God, the same word which is used by our Christian cousins. And in Arab countries the Jews use the Arabic for God, using the word Allah, the same as our Muslim cousins.

God may appear to the various monotheistic religions by many names, and for each religion the name itself may hold a certain sacredness. But above the specifics of a single name there is God, the Divine, which simply exists. The Israelites do not really need to know God’s specific name, they simply need to know that God exists – the same God which we all worship in our own ways, using our own names.

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