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Vaera: January 5, 2019

Rabbi Randall Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

My weekly bible class knows that one of the ways we need to read Torah is to look for the questions in the text. Of course, when we find a question in the Torah, it is there to help move the story along. But there is another audience for every question. We are to take every question in the Torah and ask that question of ourselves.

So, when God calls to Adam and Eve saying, “Where are you?” that is a question we need to ask ourselves, “Where am I in relation to God?” When Joseph is sent to check up on his brothers, a man meets him in the field and asks, “What are you looking for?” That too, is an important question for us to ask ourselves.

Last week, at the end of the Parsha, Pharaoh asks a question that is also important to us. Moses tells Pharaoh to “Let my people go” And Pharaoh replies with the question “Who is the Lord that I should heed him and let Israel go?” The Pharaoh of Egypt was considered to be a son of the gods. Every pagan god has a name that informs the worshipper about the god and what that god can do. Pharaoh had never heard of the God of Israel and since Israel were slaves to Pharaoh, how powerful could their God be?

But the question is being posed to us as well. “Who is the Lord that I should heed him?” That is a really important question in our lives. What does God mean to us? Why should we listen to God? The question implies that we need to know why we worship God and what can God do for us? It is a pivotal question and one that lies behind all that we believe. At the very beginning of our Parsha, God gives Moses the answer for Pharaoh’s question.

In Chapter six, verse 2 God says to Moses, “I am YHVH. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by my name YHVH.” Later commentators have many problems with these verses. First of all, the Torah does say that the Patriarchs knew the four-letter name of God. It is right there in the book of Genesis. And second of all, why does God need to be known by a new name now? If the people of Israel know God by the name El Shaddai, why do they need another name as the time of their redemption approaches?

The first thing we need to know here is that the four-letter name of God will not be the official name of God. The term Elohim will no longer be the name God will use to self- identify with the people. Beginning with Joshua, who’s name is Hoshea and will become Yehoshua, the name of God will now become a part of many Hebrew names. ELiYAhu or YirmeYAhu. One of the ways scholars date things in the Bible is looking to see if YA is now part of people’s names. It marks a turning point in Israelite history.

As I said before, the name of a god tells us a lot about the nature of that god. The fact that God has so many names in the Jewish Tradition (One book I have counts over 100 names for God in Jewish History) tells us that there are many different facets to God, perhaps more that we can imagine. YHVH is usually associated with God’s mercy while Elohim is connected to God through the attribute of justice. It is the attribute of YHVH/mercy that makes the liberation for Egyptian slavery possible. It is important that God put aside strict justice and employ mercy when judging our people.

My friend and teacher, Rabbi Bradley Artson, in the American Jewish University parsha online video commentary for this week, notes a deeper significance to the change in God’s name. He says that El Shaddai, is a name that implies the God of the Mountain tops. It is a name of strength as well as a name of abundance and wellbeing. This Is the God that the patriarchs knew. This was the powerful God that had helped them in their trials and tribulations.

The four-letter name of God that is being introduced, says Rabbi Artson, is a name that we are never supposed to pronounce. Most people think that this is part of the mystery of our God, but Rabbi Artson looks deeper. The four-letter name of God is made up of three different letters. A “yod” a “vav” and a “hay” that appears twice. There is something unusual about these three letters. They are all consonants that can also be used as vowels. The Hebrew language only has consonants, the signs for the vowels were added in the Middle Ages. These three consonants, Y,V,H, help us understand how to pronounce the letters.

You see, vowels don’t have any real sounds for themselves; vowels are only used to help us pronounce the consonants. Vowels tell us how to use our breath when we are sounding out the consonants. They don’t have any sound on their own, they are just breath. So, if God’s name is just vowels, there just is no way to pronounce it; it is all just blowing our breath. God’s name is a combination of letters that has no sound; it is impossible to speak the name of God.

The lesson here, says Rabbi Artson, is that we pronounce the name of God with every breath we take. As we inhale and exhale air, we are affirming God, who gives us life. Our breath is the essence of God in all of us. Our breath is our connection to the divine that runs through every part of creation. This is the reason this name of God is revealed now. If every breath connects us to the divine, then it also tells us that we must be free. Slavery is incompatible with the human condition.

If there are over 100 names of God, then all of them apply to the part of God that is in us. If God has planted love, justice and life in the universe, then these attributes are also a part of our being; they are part of the God that lies within us. The people connected to this God cannot be slaves. No breathing human being can be a slave to another person. We were born to be Godlike and free with every breath we take.

I received a letter recently from someone who told me that she had become unhappy with her image of God as an old man on a throne in heaven and wondered where she could find a different conception of God to consider. The fact is, many people don’t ever stop to consider who is God and why we should listen to what God has to say? A man once came up to my teacher, Rabbi Neil Gilman of blessed memory, and complained that he could no longer believe in God sitting in Heaven and judging the earth. Rabbi Gilman replied, “I don’t believe in that God anymore either.”

God is not like a severe parent in Heaven judging all we do.  Frankly, that description of God is more like Santa Claus who sees you when your sleeping and knows when you’re a wake and knows if you’ve been bad or good … well you probably know the end of that song.

Rabbi Artson helps us see God as something within us that connects us to all life in the universe. YHVH calls us to serve God with every breath we take, to value our life and to work to help make the lives of others better. “Who is this God that we should heed God?” It is the very life force within us, the force that inspires us to acts of kindness, Justice and mercy. It is the force that helps us bring love into the world. It is our life that reveals God’s name to the world. We all contain elements of all 100 names of God and when we live our lives answering the call of all those names, we bring God into the world and make this world holy.

May we always be filled with God even as our lungs are filled with air. And may we bring God’s love into the world with every breath we take. As we say …. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.


Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, January 5, 2019.

Thu, May 28 2020 5 Sivan 5780