Parshat Shemot

Torah Reading for Week of January 11-January 17, 2009

“The Purpose of Names”

by Rabbi Stephen Robbins
AJRCA Professor of Mystical Thought

The parsha of Shemot teaches the purpose of names. Jacob became Israel by struggling to overcome his darker side. The Children of Israel are named after him because we transformed from nameless slaves to a people who, like Jacob, “wrestled with G-d and man and were victorious”. By taking Egyptian names, we surrendered our identity. In the desert we found a new identity and were renamed. In response, G-d gives Moses the divine name so that the people could call upon G-d through the offerings. The Rabbis went further by making these names available to us to utilize in the prayer service.

The two names of G-d which are given to Moses are Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh
and Yud Hey and Vav Hey. Each of these names provides a lesson about how we can know G-d and be transformed. The name Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh is an expression of the quality of G-d’s being, the affirmation that G-d exists as the source of our life. There are several ways to translate and understand this name. I offer this, “I will be that which I will become.” This translation teaches that the quality of divine being in this world can be known through change and will be found in the transformational experience. Humans crave stability and yet the name asserts that the one experience we can rely on is transformation. Change is not capricious or accidental. Rather, it is intentional. G-d’s presence will be what G-d intends it to become. As G-d is described by this name, so are we described by the name Yisrael, which is transformative. So we create ourselves, we actualize our potential, by intentionally expressing our uniqueness in the world. We transcend our ego by connecting to the Soul within. The Rabbis crafted a system of behavior and experience that would give us stability through the process of change. The name shows us how to approach our transformation, not with resistance but with purpose.

Yud Hey and Vav Hey, is the name of mystery and transcendence. It unifies time into an eternal now. It contains past, present and future tense. It resolves duality as it unites masculine and feminine into a whole. So this name is the mystery of transcending space and time, the mystery of living and dying. It is this name that is given to the people and to each of us. We are the people of the Name. This is the name we use to call G-d’s attention to us in prayer. “I called out to G-d from a place of constriction and he answered me from a place of expansion”. The name represents a promise that G-d is present when we call and will respond if we know how to listen. A tragedy of contemporary Jewish life is that we have lost touch with the names. The mystics knew that the names were provided for bonding with G-d. They called it D’vekut. This act of intimacy is the essential value of spiritual living. For those of us who are dedicated to the spiritual renewal, we rediscover the intimate moment by calling out the appropriate Holy Name so we can experience Divine presence sharing in the unfolding of our lives.