Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah – Vaera
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.” As Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet struggle over the war between their families; one that forces them to keep their love secret, they espouse a truth of Messianic proportion. As we throw labels onto people, traditions, things — anything, we give it value. Too often, though, the value we give it is ambiguous and burdensome. Face it, if you were looking at a restaurant menu; how appetizing does Patagonian Toothfish sound? Call it Chilean Sea Bass and people love it. The Late Rabbi Chanan Brichto taught me that no word has any value until we use it. When we use it, it can have as many values as there are people using it. Words, then, are, at best, subjective.
A second truth also comes to mind. There is a story of a group of blindfolded people all brought into a room with an elephant. Each person held on to a different part of the elephant. In describing the animal, each could only comment on the small piece of the behemoth. Only those who could see were able to understand that the animal was greater than any individual’s description.
So, this week’s Torah portion opens by posing a dilemma, “Why does God have so many names?” The portion opens with God’s proclamation to Moses, “I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as Ael Shadai (Most Powerful), but My name Y-H-V-H, I did not disclose to them.” We also know the Biblical God as Eloah, Elohim, and Ael Elyon (for starters). One part of our tradition argues that the Torah contains 72 names for God, and, in the Rabbinic tradition, we added a host of other names. Some of the names are masculine, and others are feminine. One has to ask whether any are more powerful than the others.
The Rabbis wrestle with this matter of “God’s names” and acknowledge God as saying, “Humanity calls me according to My deeds.” Each of the “names” for God refers to an attribute of God at any given moment in life. The Sages teach that the Kabbalah takes this study on a different journey. The names and the letters in and vocalizations of in their names each unfold mystical insights.
Whether we speak about the “Trinity” of Christianity or the pantheons of the East Asian traditions (or ancient theological mythologies of Egypt, Greece, Rome, or Scandinavia, etc.), we speak about a “God” of many personalities and job descriptions. There are no competing Gods in this world.
The religions that dismiss or demean others somehow forget that each of our traditions speaks of the one God who created everything. How is it, then, that people point fingers at other religions as being polytheistic or pagan, because they see a different aspect of divinity (the elephant) or call God by different names (Shakespeare and every religious tradition)?
Are people so insecure in faith that they cannot recognize the validity of someone else’s faith without feeling somehow threatened? How can we give all this credit to an all-everything God and then limit what God can do and with whom God can speak (and in which languages God can speak)? As the tradition teaches, God is called on according to the situation. Essentially, this means that the rationale for different religious traditions is rooted in the divine understanding that, while coming from the very same source, our life and cultural milieus define who we are and how we find holiness – not which tradition is holier or less so. God is much bigger than any piece of the elephant we can experience and certainly bigger than any name or word we can use in description. We believe with the most amount of knowledge and faith in our spirit. The faith journey, though, is to learn to understand and appreciate each other’s place in faith, as well. Failure to grow in this appreciation and understanding is simply … outside of God.
Let go of the fear and find the love, hope, and excitement to grow.