Drash on Parashat Va’era
Rabbi Adi Cohen
Temple Sinai, Wellington, New Zealand
“We are all mediators, translators.” Jacques Derrida
A name is more than identification. A name is a key that opens the doors of dialogue. In the Jewish world, there are many names to refer to God. Each name represents a different concept or a different “quality” in God that we address. Throughout the centuries, many names were used, mostly in Hebrew. In today’s world, with the many languages used in worship services to address God, the question “To whom do we refer?” is much more complicated.
The second book in the Torah is Sh’mot – the Hebrew word for “names”. Throughout Sh’mot, “names” is a recurring theme: the names of the tribes, the names of the families, who is naming Moses, the names of the places, and much more. One name, however, is missing: the name of God. When Moses received his life mission, he asked God: “What shall I say to the Israelites? Who is the God who is sending me to break your bondage of slavery?” God's answer is very mysterious: “Eh’yeh asher Eh’yeh.”
This raises several questions: Why does Moses need to know God's name? What does “Eh’yeh asher Eh’yeh” mean? How can we refer to God today while acknowledging modern science side by side with traditional or modern theology?
Rabbi Menachem Ha-Cohen addressed Moses’ need to name God: “Abraham, Isaac and Jacob never asked for God’s name. They were satisfied with what was revealed to them, for only they and their families were involved in the relationship. But Moses was concerned with all Israel, and hence he needed to know the nature of God.” According to Rabbi Ha-Cohen, Moses wanted God’s nature to be public knowledge among the new nation, not an esoteric knowledge that was revealed on a ‘need-to-know basis’.
There are several interesting ways to look into this mysterious answer: “Eh’yeh asher Eh’yeh.” We can find out what traditional and modern interpreters thought, we can explore the legends of the Sages or even look at linguistic aspects of ancient Hebrew and try to find answers there. Another interesting method is to trace the different ways this verse was translated throughout the centuries. The Targum Onkelos (Aramaic) leaves the phrase untranslated, and is so quoted in the Talmud (B. B. 73a); the Septuagint (Greek) translates the phrase “Ego eimi ho on” (I am the beginning) or in other places “I am the Existing one”, or “Ego sum qui sum” (I am who I am); and the King James version translates it as “I am what I am.”
These different translations all reflect a unique theological approach. Can it be that God just meant to say: “Whatever”?
What about our understanding of this answer in today’s world? In our new Siddur Mishkan T’filah, “Eternal our God” is used to avoid gender problems as a result of referring to God as masculine or feminine. Personally I don't like this solution and I think that gender differences should be acknowledged and celebrated and not replaced by a neutral definition. My preference is to use the name “Elohim” (in singular, “Eloha”). Although in the Jewish world we believe in one God, we use the name Elohim in plural. One of the explanations for that is the notion that there is one God, but each and every person has a different understanding of the nature of God.
Throughout the generations, the Jews referred to God with many different names. The fact that this dialogue is still vibrant today means that the phrase “our God and the God of our ancestors” is not just words of prayer, it is a work in progress. In each and every generation, we make God our God with the knowledge and understanding that fits our time.