Vaera: Naming God
Remembering Alyse Laemmle z”l on the First Yahrzeit of her death
By Rabbi Susan Laemmle, 2 Shevat 5784: January 13, 2023
ו׳דבר אלוה׳ם אל משה ו׳אמר אל׳ו אנ׳ ׳הוה: וארא אל-אברההם אל-׳צחק אל-׳עקב באל שד׳ ושמ׳ ׳הוה לא נודעת׳ להם: וגם הקמת׳ את-בר׳ת׳ אתם לתת להם את-ארץ כנען את ארץ מגר׳המ אשר גרו בה
And God spoke to Moses and said to him: ‘I am YHVH. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but I was not known to them by my name YHVH. And I also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they lived as sojourners.
My mother Alyse Laemmle, z”l, died at the amazing, venerable age of 106 last January. Yesterday — the 2nd of Shevat — was her first yahrzeit. The forceful opening of this week’s parsha, Vaera, connects to two important aspects of my mother’s identity — her deep belief in God and her strong Jewish loyalty. Born in Chicago to secular Hungarian parents, my mother’s Jewish identity developed after marrying German-born Kurt Laemmle in 1937. In the following decade, she became an important speaker for United Jewish Appeal and Women’s American ORT; and in 1948, she traveled alone to displaced person camps in Europe and ORT schools in the newly-created Jewish state. Her letters from that period are riveting, and photos of her speaking publicly, inspiring. When I was 12 years old, my mother parlayed her talent for conveying complex ideas in an emotionally compelling way into a pathbreaking career in life insurance.
Through all this and more, my mother called upon spiritual strength that she often articulated to me. She spoke of God as benevolent creator and sustainer of the world. She prayed for things that were important to her. And she manifested her faith through treating other people as made in God’s image. Way back in the parochial 50s, my mother full-heartedly embraced the people we then called negros as well as those we now refer to as GLBTQ, and she brought along my father. When my mother passed away, I inherited the kiddush cup and candle sticks that were our family gift for her adult bat mitzvah.
Parshat Vaera opens with God telling Moses about earlier divine appearances to the patriarchs. What’s distinctive about this opening is its articulation and self-aware comparison of three different names for God: אלה׳ם, ׳הוה אל-שד׳. Our Etz Hayim chumash has a long note on this unitary deity goes by a variety of names; and virtually every commentator has something to say about this phenomenon. Most see Elohim as representing God’s attribute of justice, with YHVH (which we pronounce as Adonai) embodying that of mercy; or this is sometimes put as God’s distance over against God’s nearness. For Maimonides, Elohim and various other names denote God’s actions while the Four-letter name YHVH alone denotes God’s essence. As for the name El Shaddai, Saadia Gaon and others root its meaning in in dai – enough; giving us a meaning of “the one who said “enough” to the world. But Ibn Ezra, connecting El Shaddai to a root for “destroy,” prefers a meaning of “strong and victorious.” In the JPS Torah Commentary to Exodus, Nahum Sarna explains that “the divine name Shaddai lost its vitality in Israel with the advent of Moses, . . . which is in perfect harmony with Exodus 6:3’s assigning it to the pre-Mosaic age.” Remembering that the word Shaddai appears on the back of every mezuzah’s parchment claf is typically explained by its being an acronym for Shomer d’latot Yisrael — the one who guards Jewish doorways.
Richard Elliot Friedman offers a nuanced explanation for these opening verses’ most confusing aspect: the statement that God was not known to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob by the divine name YHVH when that divine name actually appears six times in Genesis; let me summarize Friedman’s explanation: Critical scholarship points to the Torah’s being composed from multiple sources, thus resolving this problem historically. Still it’s more meaningful to focus on the full Torah as we know it, where the point being made is covenantal. That is: In the Noahchite covenant, God is called Elohim; in the Abrahamic covenant, God is known as El Shaddai. But the approaching covenant at Mt. Sinai will feature the name YHVH. And so to connect the earlier patriarchal covenant with Vaera’s present and Yitro’s future covenantal encounters, the very next words here in Parshat Vaera are “And I also established my covenant with them ” — ie the Patriarchs, and we would add the Matriarchs.
Taking this all together then and continuing further into the parsha, we have a deity for whom being in direct relationship with the patriarchs and their descendants, Bnai Yisrael, is vital — as is being known by name. When the biblical text continues, it’s clear that such relating and being known includes, indeed requires, witnessing or being made to experience the display of divine might that comes with the plagues and that enables the Israelites to leave Egyptian slavery. The patriarchs did not experience the essential power associated with the name YHVH, for the promises made to them were still in the distant future. Our parsha’s reiteration of those promises exclusively in the name of YHVH means that their fulfillment is imminent. As Rashi puts this: “I did not make myself known to them in my aspect of utter truthfulness and reliability, which is represented by the Tetragrammaton. For I made them these promises, but did not yet fulfill them.” Furthermore, it is vital s’yadoo mitzrayim ki ani Adonai — that the Egyptians too know that Adonai is God. Not simply so that they will release an enslaved people in their midst but so that Adonai’s dominion — God’s control of and attention to the entire world — will be recognized.
Rabbi Louis Jacobs z”l, the founder of European Masorti Judaism, includes within his helpful book A Jewish Theology a chapter on “The Names of God” with sections from biblical to Kabbalistic formulations. His conclusion: “The history of the naming of God demonstrates very clearly that people have given names to the Deity in accordance with the particular ideas they wished to emphasize in their approach to the great mystery.” In translating psalms in which YHVH recurs and repeats, the Reconstructionist Movement’s Siddur Kol Haneshama offers a range of proper names: The Magnificent, The Holy One, The Incomparable, The Eternal, The Creator, The All-Seeing , and the Compassionate.
I draw to a close by summoning a provocative 2019 article entitled “Why We Name: the Power of Taming to Drive Deep Connections with a Brand.” This article from the world of commerce sets out to explain the universal practice of naming across eons and cultures before turning to the practice known to us today as “branding”. The article takes as its epigraph my favorite passage from the French author Saint-Exupery’s classic The Little Prince, where the fox explains thus to the young prince: “To me you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need to me. . . . But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world.” We human being name people, animals, and objects to confer emotional life upon them — to bring them closer to us, to tame them.
So it is that our sense of God’s presence gains solidity within us by articulating — silently to ourselves, or aloud — one or more of the names by which God has been called. We cannot “tame” God as the little prince tames the fox; but still, calling God by name helps create intimacy and mutuality. I pause to reflect on how all this affects me: My God is the merciful and close at hand YHVH/Adonai; my God is the justice-moored, cosmic and universal Elohim; and my God is the elemental, in some ways primitive, El Shaddai. My God is also very much Ha-Makom, the place where the threads of reality come together; the lynchpin of the universe; the essence that transcends all particular names and places. Also for me, the term we use when not wanting to use God’s Hebrew names loosely — HaShem — is perhaps the most moving and evocative of all.
Today — with Rabbi Elliot Dorff and his family — we celebrate the birthday of an important teacher and role model, mentor and matriarch in our community, Marlynn Dorff. Also, the birthday of longtime Library Minyan member Carl Sunshine. My beloved mother Alyse could not be in better company. May her memory endure as a blessing, and may Marlynn and Carl continue to celebrate birthdays within our beloved community.