"Only the right name gives beings and things their reality," says the Childlike Empress in "The Neverending Story."
"Only the right name gives beings and things their reality," says the Childlike Empress in "The Neverending Story."

Names have the power to shape our reality

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek.

Ki Tavo

Deuteronomy 26:1–29:8

“You have affirmed the Lord today to be your God, to walk in God’s ways” (Deut. 26:17).

Recently I read “The Neverending Story,” a young adult novel that became a classic Gen-X movie. I thought the modern fairytale would be a nice distraction from the approaching High Holidays. It follows a young boy as he gets into a fairytale — literally — joining a quest to save the land of Fantastia.

For me, the themes of Elul heading into Rosh Hashanah were unavoidable in the book, as the author explores the worlds (our inner worlds and the world around us) that we create through the power of the word.

The book shows how the inner life of the mind and our actual-lived reality can feel like distinct worlds, and both need each other to survive and thrive, but also can threaten each other. Our thoughts and speech have the power to create and destroy worlds. Fantastica’s ruler, the Childlike Empress, exclaims, “Only the right name gives beings and things their reality. A wrong name makes everything unreal.” The names we give create a given reality.

This time of year, our liturgy focuses intensely on the names we were given through Moses to affirm God’s attributes.

The 13 middot harachamim, Divine attributes of mercy, make up the core of the selichot (penitential prayers) and the tashlich. The Sages teach that to “walk in God’s ways” is to embody those attributes of mercy in our own lives. Affirming God’s names and attributes guides us in creating our individual reality.

Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, in his 16th-century work “Tomer Devorah,” writes: “What good is it for a person to reflect the Divine Form in a physical form only, if one’s deeds do not imitate those of his creator? Thus, it is proper that man’s actions imitate the Thirteen Divine Attributes of Mercy.”

He then expands on these attributes and how we might manifest these qualities as human beings. This mode of efficacy of the 13 attributes, the imitation of the Divine, is the work of a lifetime of character development.

But we all know how many times we recite the 13 attributes — and nothing seems to happen; our sins do not seem to disappear.

How does our recitation of these names of the Divine during the coming weeks seek to create and renew our very existence?

The first of the attributes, at first glance, are somewhat curious as they are the YHVH name of God. (Some even choose to leave them out of their list of the 13.) Yet they are the foundation, and the pivot, for what follows. This name is related to havaya, existence itself, and is also the name of God most associated with mercy and compassion (Shemot Rabbah 3:6). “Eheyeh asher Eyeheh,” “I will be what I will be,” “I was, and am and always will be” assures God with YHVH name.

Rabbi Ezra Bick, in the beautiful and thoughtful meditation on the 13 attributes, “In His Mercy,” explains that the first YHVH of the 13 attributes represents the hessed (compassion) of our very existence rather than any specific quality or precondition.

This message of the YHVH name is eternal as it is timely.

The names we give ourselves, as individuals and as communities, can often feel fraught and vulnerable. Whether it be the name we call ourselves with regard to religion, sexual orientation, gender, nationality or other essential identity — the right to proclaim these names, and (by extension) the right to existence, is threatened for many on a daily basis. When this most basic of names is denied, lives and worlds are destroyed. When this most basic of names is affirmed, lives and worlds are created and sustained.

In the coming weeks, as Jews around the world “affirm the Lord today to be your God, to walk in God’s ways” may we affirm and heed the message of the first attribute of havaya for ourselves, our communities and for all created in the image of God.

Writes Bick: “When reciting the first attributes of Havaya, one should have in mind ‘I call in the name of God who brings all the worlds into existence, and I request kindness because I exist; I am an object of divine kindness, and God desires the existence of all things. I do not request compassion on account of my personality, my conduct, the merits of my ancestors, or any other specific quality, but rather solely because through my existence I fulfill the will of God that the world exist, as expressed through the name Havaya.’”

Maharat Victoria Sutton
Maharat Victoria Sutton

Maharat Victoria Sutton is the former director of education and community engagement at Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley.