Parshat Va’era

Names, Holy Chutzpah and the Disappearance of El Shaddai”
By Rabbi Min Kantrowitz, ‘04


The narrative of this Torah portion, introducing the familiar story of Pharaoh’s refusal to free the Israelite slaves, resulting in the first group of plagues, rapidly moves the plot line of Chumash forward.  In doing so, the important, but perhaps more subtle theological turning point that appears at the beginning of the parsha might be overlooked—that of the disappearance of El Shaddai! What is going on?

Names are important in Judaism.  We hope to leave a good name behind us, Ashkenazim name children after deceased relatives to perpetuate their memories, Sephardim use the names of revered living relatives, and we inscribe the names of our loved ones on their grave markers.  There are a number of Biblical examples of changing a name at life’s turning points: Sarai/Sarah; Avram/Avraham; Jacob/Israel.  There’s even a tradition of changing the name of a person who is critically ill, to ‘confuse the Angel of Death”. The first two verses of this Torah portion deal with the most important Name of all.

In the first two verses of the parsha, we encounter three different G-d-names. A fourth one appears a few verses later!  In verse 6:2, G-d (named here as Elohim) speaks to Moses and says, “I am YHVH”.  Verse 6:3 continues this speech:  “I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make myself known to them by My Name YHVH.”

Elohim is a common name for the Divine, appearing in the very first verse of Genesis and then almost 300 other instances in the Chumash.  To complicate matters, although verse 6:3 states that the Patriarchs were not told of the YHVH name, it appears more than 100 times in Genesis.  And El Shaddai? El Shaddai, often translated as Almighty, is etymologically related to words meaning “breast” and “mountain”,  perhaps implying nurturing strength. It shows up just five times in Genesis, and this one time in Exodus, and is never heard from again in Chumash.  What is going on here?

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 111a) posits that the Patriarchs accepted El Shaddai as the Almighty , but Moses was not that credulous:  G-d says: “Many times I revealed Myself to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; they did not question My ways, nor did they say to me, “What is Your name?” You (meaning Moses), on the other hand, asked from the start, “What is Your name?”

Rashi explains El Shaddai as God’s characteristic of giving promises and YHVH as fulfilling promises. In Genesis, the Patriarchs were promised a future. Rambam explains that El Shaddai demonstrated the providential power of God while YHWH showed the miracle-working power. Umberto Cassuto said El Shaddai referred to God as the giver of fertility (El Shaddai is connected to Gen 17:1-2 focusing on fruitfulness and covenant) while YHVH is the One who carries out those promises. According to these commentators, the patriarchs knew the name YHVH, but they had no experience of the actions or events that would be fulfilled through that name.

In Exodus 6:4-8, Moshe listens to a set of promises, this time given in the name of YHVH.  When urged to approach Pharaoh, Moshe addresses YHVH directly, complaining, “The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of impeded speech!”  The Hebrew phrase for ‘impeded speech’, based on the root Ayin Resh Lamed, relates to circumcision and is translated as having ‘uncircumcised lips’.  No wonder Moshe had a hard time speaking directly to G-d, especially since traditionally the four letter name YHVH is not pronounced. The only one who ever pronounced the name out loud was the High Priest, and then only in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur. Perhaps Moshe, unable or unwilling to risk a mispronunciation, did what we do today, substituting Adonai or HaShem for the unpronounceable Mystery of the four letter name.

Today, we pray for our lips to be opened, using the words of Psalm 51:17 , “Open my lips, and let my mouth declare Your praise.”  We are asking for our lips to be circumcised and thus open in prayer, to reaffirm the covenant, for help in doing something that is so hard for us to do, to enter into conversation with G-d, by any name, no matter how much doubt we have, no matter how hard it is.  What holy chutzpah we have each time we recite these words before prayer, addressing not the almost ubiquitous Elohim name, not as El Shaddai, the ancient disappearing G-d of promises, not even as YHVH using a substitute name to avoid the unpronounceable one, but using yet another G-d name, one used by Moshe in last week’s parsha, in his first attempt to avoid the task G-d has set for him: Adonai!


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