This week's parsha opens with a conversation between God and Moses. God states, "I am YHVH. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but by my name YHVH I did not make Myself known to them."
Why the two names for God? The rabbis might have responded to this questions with another, "Why only two names?" For they teach that there are at least 70 names for God. Adonai, El, HaMakom, Elohim, HaKadosh Baruch Hu, and Shechinah are only a few of them.
Why are there so many names for the One?
If we believe that someone's name carries their essence, we can explain the need for so many ways by which to call God. God is everything. It would be impossible for one name to capture all aspects of the Divine. Despite the various ways in which the tradition models how we can refer to God, it is still a struggle to understand and access God.
Our text, Ex 6:2-3, imparts more than the insight that there are two names for God. It teaches us that God chose to be revealed by one name to Moses and by another to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The name YHVH is not pronounceable. Only the high priest was able to utter this name in the holy of holies and only on Yom Kippur. El Shaddai is translated as God Almighty. God must have had a reason for revealing these different aspects to our ancestors. Why was it fitting for Moses to connect with YHVH at the time when he is being coached on freeing the Israelites from slavery? What was it about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that they were connected with the Almighty?
We can, in fact, choose which name we will reveal to others. Think about the people in your life and by which name they know you. To many I am Kate. To the telemarketer I am Mrs. Speizer. To my son I am Mom. To some I am Rabbi. These names all capture aspects of the essence of who I am.
It is an intimate thing to know someone by name. At our programs we use name tags to make people feel welcome and at home. There is great comfort in knowing people by name. In some cases we know people by multiple names. This gives us greater insight into who these people are.
The midrash teaches that people actually have three names; one given by their parents, one that others call them, and one that they acquire for themselves. By what name do you appear to the various people in your life?
Written by Rabbi Kate Speizer, director of Jewish education and program at Cornell Hillel: The Yudowitz Center for Jewish Campus Life.
Additional commentaries and text studies on Parshat Vaeyra at MyJewishLearning.com.