What’s In A Name?
In the opening chapters of the Torah, we learn that God has a range of different names. In the very first line of the Torah, God is referred to as Elohim; “Bereishit Barah Elohim”. (Bereishit 1:1). In a number of places in chapter 2, God is called Adonai Elohim, and in chapter 4, God is called Adonai. The most common explanation is that the variations are used to describe God’s role or the specific environment in that chapter. For example, Elohim is used as a universal name, and Adonai as a specific name; Elohim is the name God uses when exercising judgment, and Hashem when exercising mercy.
From the very beginning, one of the key themes of this parasha is naming (a recurring theme throughout the Torah). In chapter 1, God creates the heavens and the earth, and all that is within them, and God gives names to these objects. In chapter 2, Adam is given the task of naming the living beings. In chapter 5, we read a concise genealogy from Adam through to Noah, and through a brief description of each of the ten generations, we learn the names of the key players in each generation.
Names are a way of identifying a specific person or a group of people, and we all have our own names, as well as some nicknames or other names people may refer to us as. As parents, we get to name our children, and we have important reasons as to why we choose their names. When we name a person or an animal, or an object, we establish a specific connection to that person, animal or object, and we (even if subconsciously) establish some control over that which we have named.
Now let us turn our attention to God’s name. We cannot name God. If we did, we would be stating that we control God, which is in direct contrast to the role of God as the Creator. However, we also can’t not have a name for God. To do so would be to live without a relationship with God, therefore we need a name for God.
This predicament is not reliant on whether or not we believe God exists. It is a necessary part of how we interact with a consistent role through the Torah, and further in our teachings. It would be very difficult to read and learn from the Torah, each and every week, if we chose not to include God as part of the story.
It is very possible that there is no resolution to this quandary. It is the nature of being human. By using God’s different names throughout the parasha, perhaps the Torah is trying to teach us that from the outset, there exists the reality of a multitude of perspectives within our own experiences, to the many relationships we have with the world, our spouses, children, parents, ourselves, and God. The human story is bound up with God’s story, our name is bound up with God’s name, both within our control and beyond it, close and distant at the same time.
May the new cycle of reading Torah allow us to renew our relationship with its teachings and challenges, and may we continue to learn, discuss and grow together.
Reverend Sam Zwarenstein