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god is and god becomes


Shabbat Shemot 5778 | January 6, 2018
I was sitting in the back of the classroom talking with my friends, when our eighth grade Hebrew High School teacher called my name, asked me to come to the chalkboard and copy a phrase from the Torah onto the board. Reluctantly, I rose from my seat, approached the board and began writing the Hebrew verse in chalk. When I announced to all that my task was complete, my teacher turned around to look at my work.
“What have you done?” he asked in anger. “Did I copy the wrong verse?” I replied with surprise. “You can’t ever write that!” he shouted to me and the entire class. “Write what?” I asked on behalf of us all. “The four Hebrew letters that are the name of God. We can’t ever write them down,” he explained. “Oh, I didn’t realize that. I just copied the verse you assigned me. I’m sorry.” As I apologized I turned to the board, picked up the eraser and began to correct my mistake.
As I was erasing what I wrote, I heard an even louder scream. “No! Don’t erase it. Now it must stay on the board.” My teacher walked forward, picked up the chalk and drew a box around a half-visible representation of God’s name. “All of you,” he addressed the class, “are to leave this alone.”
Which, of course, we didn’t. At recess a group formed around me and the board. In youthful defiance, we each took turns erasing and writing, erasing and writing the Tetragrammaton, the four Hebrew letters our tradition uses to symbolize the name of God.
I do not recount this story out of any disrespect for my teacher or Jewish tradition. It’s just that his reaction fostered a distance between me, many of my classmates, and God rather than the awe and respect our teacher desired us to feel.
At that moment, I decided. In whatever became of my religious and spiritual development, I would choose to speak or write God’s name without abbreviation or shortcut. I discovered the first premise of my personal theology. I will not be afraid of God.
Today, I understand why our tradition asks us to be careful with God’s name. The name of God represents our ideals and our hopes. God’s name personifies for many of us our beliefs and values. Being careful with God’s name teaches us to be careful with all that we cherish and care about.
We have to invoke God’s name carefully. All of us recognize how much evil some people do in the name of God. We also celebrate the blessings and inspiration we receive in life in God’s name. We invoke God’s name in our expressions of gratitude and concern. Some people sew division or demonstrate contempt in the name of God. We have to be careful when we invoke God’s name.
We also have to be honest about God’s name. God’s name is ineffable. There is literally nothing we can say for certain about God. We develop our ideas about God in contrast to what we know about ourselves. We are physical. God is incorporeal, spiritual. We are finite. God is eternal.
Our quest for understanding something about God and God’s name begins with Moses’ coming upon a Burning Bush. As God reveals plans for Moses to go before Pharaoh and seek the release of the Israelite slaves, Moses asks for some information.
“Moses said to God, “When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is God’s name?’ what shall I say to them? And God said to Moses, “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh.” God continued, “Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘Ehyeh sent me to you.”
And God said further to Moses, “Thus shall you speak to the Israelites: The Eternal, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob has sent me to you: This shall be My name forever, this shall be My appellation for all eternity.”
Before going deeper into the meaning of this text, I offer an aside. I’m uncomfortable with the use of Adonai as the English name or label for God in our new Siddur Lev Shalem. In most other ways, I love this prayer book. In this instance, however, I’m uncomfortable making God’s name into a proper noun.
As stated to Moses at the Burning Bush, I read and understand God’s name to be a verb, not a proper noun. Ehyeh, “I will be.” I am. I exist. Deal with it! Believe it or not. Doubt it or question it. That’s for us to grapple with. God does not present to Moses as a being with a name but rather as “be-ing,” as existing. “Ehyeh-asher-Ehyeh. I will be. I will always be.
I am sympathetic to voices in Jewish tradition that use the word “Eternal” to represent God. Barukh Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh haOlam. Barukh Atah Adonai (our Siddur wisely doesn’t translate the opening phrase of each Hebrew blessing) Eternal Our God, Sovereign of time and space.
Rashi explains this about God’s name. Certain names can be written and erased. Other names, if written, should not be erased. My Hebrew High teacher didn’t present the lesson this way. He simply scolded me. Among the names that cannot be erased on Rashi’s list is the Tetragrammaton. Maimonides further elaborates. A non-Hebrew term, such as God, is no more sacred than the descriptive Hebrew names for God which may be erased.
Our words represent our ideas, especially when we’re talking about beliefs. Some of us will not write or pronounce various forms of God’s name because we wish to symbolize the sacred and boundless nature of God. We must remember, however. Our words about God are not the same as God. Others, like me, do write and pronounce these traditional or English names of God, G-O-D, to demonstrate God’s accessibility and presence in the experiences of our lives.
I’ve got a secret to share. Well, it’s not exactly mine. It comes from Rabbi Samuel ben Meir, a leading 12th century French Torah commentator who was Rashi’s grandson. In an ancient Hebrew code known as AT-BASH, Rashbam explains the meaning of God’s answer to Moses quest for God’s name, “Ehyeh-asher-Ehyeh, I will be. I will always be,” for those able to discern and understand. God is eternal and God is becoming.
God is becoming to us through the experiences of history and human life. Through our experiences and our behaviors God becomes real to us. God is eternal and God is becoming. For Jewish rational philosophers and mystics through the ages, and still for us today, this is the meaning of Ehyeh-asher-Ehyeh.
We come to know God through experience, through relationship, through goodness, justice, and truth. Through us God is present in the world. Demonstrating our belief through ritual and celebration, through conscience and ethics, and through the words we speak and the names we call, God becomes real to us.
We must careful with God’s name. We must also be honest. For ultimately, as we learn with Moses, to speak God’s name is to speak of the promise of redemption and of all we desire our lives and our world still to become.
© 2018 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
Sat, March 2 2024 22 Adar I 5784