Why do we think that God’s name has changed? Maybe it has been these mysterious names all along?
SHEMOT, EXODUS 1:1-6:1
Early in the Book of Exodus (known traditionally to Jews as Shemot), God goes through a change of name.
For the Eternal Holy One Who suffuses all the universe to change The Name is seismic. Cosmic.
It happens twice — first at the Burning Bush, then again in Egypt. And the difference is important.
The first time, as Moses faces the unquenchably fiery voice sending him on a mission to end slavery under Pharaoh, he warns the voice that the people will challenge him.
And the Holy One, the Wholly One, answers: “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh — I Will Be Who I Will Be” — a fitting name for a universe in which the powerless poor can be empowered and the pharaoh’s power can dissolve like powder into the Sea of Reeds. Then God adds, “But that’s a mouthful. You can use just ‘Ehyeh, I Will Be,’ as my nickname, if you like.”
“And, oh yes, you can also call me ‘YHWH.’ ”
But we actually can’t. There’s no way to pronounce those letters, with no vowels. And for a couple of millennia, Jews have been strictly taught not even to try pronouncing it but instead to say “Adonai.”
Now why do we think that God’s name has changed? Maybe it has been these mysterious names all along?
But God and Torah say: Not so. The second time the voice tells Moses that the new Name is “YHWH” is in Exodus 6:2-3. Moses is in Egypt, and his first try at liberation and at organizing “Brickmakers Union, Local #1” has miserably failed.
This time, the voice explicitly says that the name by which He/She/It was known to the forebears — El Shaddai, the Breasted God, the God of Nourishment and Nurture, is no longer the name for use in the liberation process.
Why this second voicing of the new name?
I suggest that Moses has, since the Bush and during his first effort in Egypt, been careless about using the new name. He has often used the old one on the warmhearted assumption that his listeners would be more
comfortable with it.
But the old name cannot inspire a new sense of reality. That’s why Moses has failed, the Brickmakers Union has collapsed. So this time, the voice makes it absolutely clear: “Stop already! I am YHWH, not El Shaddai, even though your forebears knew me that way.”
The point is that when the world is turning upside down or inside out, God must be differently named. Because God is different when the world is different. And because human beings cannot deeply absorb the newness of the world and their own crucial need to act on that newness unless they are challenged to rename God.
In our generation, even more than in Moses’ day, the world is being transformed. The entire web of life as we have known it for our entire history as a species, including human life and civilization, is under great strain.
We must rename God, to be truthful to the changing reality and to teach ourselves to act in new ways.
And that is why I have been urging us to know God in our own generation through “pronouncing” the Unpronounceable Name by simply breathing — YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh with no vowels, as the Interbreath of Life, the ONE that keeps all life alive, that intertwines, interbreathes, the trees and grasses and ourselves.
We breathe in what the trees breathe out. The trees breathe in what we breathe out. We breathe each other into life:
The “climate crisis” is a radical disturbance in the Earth’s atmosphere that has thrown out of balance the mixture of what we breathe out and what the trees breathe out — that is, the balance of carbon dioxide and oxygen. By burning fossil fuels, human action is sending more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than Mother Earth can breathe.
If we hear YHWH as the interbreathing of all life, then that name itself is now in crisis. God’s Interbreathing Name is harshly wounded, and it will take our action to heal it.
We cannot begin the healing so long as we refuse to name the wound. Using the old names, names of “Lord” and “King” and domination, is like trying to heal a seriously wounded person by treating someone else. We can only begin the healing by reclaiming the truth of the name, the breath within the name.
Just as we calm ourselves by breathing mindfully as individuals, so all humanity must learn to clear the life-breath of the planet by a collective calming, shared mindfulness. That requires not just action by many individuals in their individual lives, but public action by communities and polities to heal the wounded Interbreathing. Praying with our lips and lungs, and praying with our legs.
“Science,” “politics,” and “religion” fuse into a single truth.
If we are to do as Torah demands, heal our deeply wounded planet from impending disaster, we must do as Moses learned to do and rename God.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Ph.D., founded and directs The Shalom Center.
The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.