This week we read the second Torah portion from Exodus. Because I was away last week, I didn’t get to write much. To begin this week, here is something from the URJ and Rabbi Laura Geller I found thought provoking, interesting, and right on the money.
It happened again this week–this time at the gym. Just as I was finishing my workout, someone called to me:
“You’re Rabbi Geller, right?”
“You know what, rabbi? I don’t believe in God.”
It is hard to know how to respond when that happens. Usually I mumble about giving me a call to discuss it. Other times, when I have more time, I ask the person to describe the “god” he or she doesn’t believe in.
Nine times out of ten it is the god that the person first met as a child, the one who looks like an old man with a beard who lives somewhere in the sky and knows if you’ve been bad or good. The person is usually surprised when I say: “You know, I don’t believe in that ‘god’ either.”
The more we talk, the more the person shares how for him, coming to synagogue only reinforces that image of a god. Even our prayer book, gender neutral as it is, seems to support the image of a powerful ruler, delivering us from oppressors and saving us from tyrants. While the words don’t actually say it, this god looks like a king or a powerful father.
I don’t believe in that god either.
This week’s Torah portion begins: “God spoke to Moses . . . . ‘I am the Eternal. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make myself known to them by My name YHVH.’ ”
Here, in the middle of the famous story of Moses and Pharaoh and the plagues is a theological discussion about God’s names. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob have one name for God and Moses has another. But what is even more surprising is the fact that that the name YHVH had already been known to Abraham (Genesis 15:7) and Jacob (28:13).
Akedat Yitzchak, cited in Nechama Leibowitz, Studies in Shemot ([Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization, 1981], p.133), explains: “From this it emerges that the text is a pointer not to God’s name but to God’s essence.” In other words, though this name of God had already been revealed to the patriarchs; what is new is the particular experience of God that the name connotes. For Rashi, that experience is of a God who fulfills promises, and it was only with Moses that God fulfilled the promise to redeem the people and bring us to the land of Canaan (Rashi on Exodus 6:2).
Cassuto, in his commentary to Exodus (cited in Studies in Shemot, p.139) suggests that El Shaddai is the God we experience in nature. No one is exactly sure what shaddai means: perhaps “mountains,” perhaps “breasts.” Could El Shaddai be a hint at a feminine description of God? (see The Torah: A Women’s Commentary [New York: URJ Press, 2008] p. 333). Some read the word as a play on El sh’ dai, “the God who is Enough” (see The Chumash, edited by Nosson Scherman [Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, ArtScroll Series, 1993], p. 319).
The question of God’s name was central in last week’s Torah portion as well. Moses noticed a bush that was burning without being burned up. He stopped, turned around and paid attention (Exodus 3:3). How many others had passed that bush but hadn’t turned to look? We don’t know. We only know that Moses paid attention.
So Moses found God in the Burning Bush. And when Moses asked God to tell him His name, God replied “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh; I will be what I will be” (3:13-14). Ehyeh is the future tense of the verb, to be.
So what is the name YHVH? It seems to be a version of the present tense. It seems to mean: “IS.”
To say God is “IS-ness” is a little different from saying that god is that old man in the sky with the beard.
Imagine how YHVH might be pronounced if we actually pronounced it? It is all sounds of breathing, breathing in, and breathing out. Imagine that one of God’s names is the sound of breathing, and then ask yourself: “How many times today have I said God’s name?”
How many times have you stopped and noticed? The psalmist says: “With every breath, we praise God” (Psalm 150:6).
The challenge is to pay attention, to notice that God is as much a part of us as breathing and as necessary as our own breath.
God appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in one way and to Moses in another. The second Torah portion in the book called “Names” (Sh’mot) reminds us that there is one deity with many different names.
Think about the “god” you don’t believe in. Is it that you don’t believe in God or is it that you are stuck on one particular name, one particular metaphor that doesn’t name your experience of God? Might there be a different metaphor, another name that opens up the possibility of encounter with a power grander than yourself, with a web that can connect every person to every other person?
Here are some others: God is the engine that powers the universe and God is the gas in the engine; God is the Internet server that links us all together and the universe is the hardware; God is the ocean and we are the waves.
We know how God appeared to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses because they were willing to notice. Are we paying enough attention to notice how God can appear to us?