Moses at the Burning Bush by James Tissot
"Moses at the Burning Bush" by James Tissot, ca. 1900

How God’s many names teach us to exemplify godly compassion

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Exodus 6:2–9:35

Ezekiel 28:25–29:21

What is God’s name? As with most Jewish questions, this one has multiple answers. The Torah is replete with different names for God, some of which resonate more strongly while others might make us want to distance ourselves from the Divine.

Some names describe God in terms of attributes: listener, forgiving, slow to anger. Others convey God’s omnipotence, omnipresence and omniscience. There are names that suggest God has gender, or perhaps the ambiguity is evidence of God’s gender fluidity. And frequently God is named based on action: a redeemer from slavery to freedom, God who visits the sick, cares for the vulnerable.

Regardless of your answer, one thing is quite clear: The diversity of names paints the picture of a God who is dynamic, ever-changing, constantly evolving from one moment to the next.

The opening chapters of Exodus highlight God’s transformation through these names. Last week, when Moses encountered the burning bush, Moses asked how God should be introduced to the Israelites. God answers, “Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘Ehyeh sent me to you … This shall be My name forever, this My appellation for all eternity” (Exodus 3:13-15).

In addition to an ancestral connection, God has a new name, Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, often translated as “I am that I am” or “I will be what I will be.”

In this week’s Torah portion, as Moses returns to Egypt, God says, “I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself to them by My name Adonai” (Exodus 6:2-3).

So which one is it? Ehyeh? El Shaddai? Adonai? Why does God have so many names and how do they help us not only understand God but also strive to emulate Godliness in the world?

According to one Midrash, the rabbis imagine that each name is associated with a particular deed. The Midrash teaches, “Sometimes I am called El Shaddai, Tzeva’ot, Elohim and Adonai. When I judge humanity, I am called Elohim. When I give a person a suspended sentence for their sins, then I am called El Shaddai. When I wage war against the wicked, I am called Tzeva’ot. And when I have compassion on my world, I am called Adonai — for Adonai is the attribute of compassion, as it is written, ‘Adonai, Adonai, compassionate and gracious God’” (Exodus 34:6).

Thus, Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh: “I am what I am, or I will be what I will be — I am called after my deeds” (Shemot Rabbah 3:6).

God’s first introduction to Moses conveys God’s adaptability and flexibility, using name that is perpetually in process and becoming. Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh is the name of God that can be what we need God to be any given situation. Just like with human relationships, we are called to respond in different ways toward one another: as listener, as empathizer, as doer, as collaborator, etc.

Similarly, the first name of God in the Book of Exodus allows Moses, and by extension, the Israelites, to experience the Divine as dynamic, capable of being present in any given moment to our needs and the needs of the world. So why, in this week’s portion, does God say that God’s real name is Adonai, a name that according to the midrash denotes a God of compassion?

Rabbi Julia Andelman, director of community engagement at the Jewish Theological Seminary, suggests that God needed to respond to Moses in a moment of struggle. In facing his doubts as a leader, Moses didn’t need a God of process or deed; rather, he needed a God of compassion. Rabbi Andelman wrote online in a Torah commentary: “Moses’ burden is simply too great, and his self-confidence too low, for him to overcome his ambivalence toward God’s directives. God changes tack, signaling — with the revelation of a new name embodying compassion — an understanding that it is a new era, in which the hands of leaders will need to be held through their challenges, doubts and fears. Moses’ relationship with God [is one of] coming close, then pulling away; flourishing with faith, then faltering with doubt … Perhaps God — like Moses — needs the reassurance of compassionate partnership in order to facilitate change in the world.”

These days, it’s easy to feel like Moses, filled with doubt and fear about the world, let alone the existence of God.

While it’s hard to always feel God’s presence, the idea that God can be who we need God to be through these different names is poignant. God teaches us that just like God can adapt to be more compassionate with Moses in a moment of struggle, so too can we.

As we begin 2019, facing numerous challenges and low levels of confidence, let us learn to act more like God does toward Moses, embracing one another with compassion, understanding and flexibility. For in doing so, we not only sanctify the Divine name, but also bring honor and holiness to our own name and to those around us.

Rabbi Corey Helfand
Rabbi Corey Helfand

Rabbi Corey Helfand is the spiritual leader of Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. He can be reached at [email protected].