This week’s parashat hashavua, Va’Era, derives its name from a curious assertion on the part of none other than God about the names by which we know God: I am יהוה – I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob by the name El Shaddai, but my name יהוה they did not come to know. (Ex.6.2-3). What’s a bit strange about this is that if you go back and check the Book of Genesis, that Four Letter Name of God does indeed appear in the text. What does God mean by saying they did not know God by that name?
Our companion in insightful interpretation, the medieval commentator Rashi, writes: “It is not written here I did not make the name known to them but they did not come to know the name.” It’s one thing to hear a name spoken. It is apparently quite another to know the name that one hears spoken. This Name of God, ancient though it is, is not necessarily known, says God.
Knowing is not an easy thing. “One may love a river as soon as one sets eyes upon it; it may have certain features that fit instantly with one’s conception of beauty, or it may recall the qualities of some other river, well known and deeply loved. One may feel in the same way an instant affinity for a man or a woman and know that here is pleasure and warmth and the foundation of deep friendship. In either case the full riches of the discovery are not immediately released – they cannot be; only knowledge and close experience can release them. Rivers, I suppose, are not at all like human beings, but it is still possible to make apt comparisons, and this is one: understanding, whether instinctive and immediate or developing naturally through time or grown by conscious effort, is a necessary preliminary to love. Understanding of another human being can never be complete, but as it grows toward completeness, it becomes love almost inevitably.” (Roderick L. Haig-Brown, “To Know a River”, Home Waters: A Fly-Fishing Anthology. Fireside/Simon & Schuster)
In the process which Moshe undergoes of coming to know God, it will take a lifetime to reach completeness. In just the first few chapters of Exodus, three significant names for God are recorded in the text. Upon consideration of the nuanced echoes of the Torah’s usage and context, you will see that each one of them is less known than you thought:
Most intriguingly, the name El Shaddai, that Name which God says was known to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, is possibly linked to a cognate form from the Akkadian language which refers to breasts. Perhaps El Shaddai, which could refer to a sense of a nurturing Mother God, was precisely the appropriate name for our early ancestors to know God by during those first years in which they took their “baby steps” toward the rich fullness of what we now practice as Judaism.
This name which God presents to Moshe, the Four Letter Name of יהוה , seems not to be a proper name at all. It is not pronounceable in this form. Perhaps, rather, it is a pictograph: a simple invoking of the letters by which one expresses the Hebrew verb “to be” in all its tenses: was, is, will be. In other words, not a proper name, but an evocation of Eternity. All.
And most mysterious of all, the Name God gives Moshe at the bush which burned but was not consumed: Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh. This is often but not necessarily translated “I will be what I will be.” What will yet be is not yet apparent. This is what Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all struggled with.
And now, we, in our turn, struggle with the same uncertainty. There is an immediate, urgent need for clarity – and there will be no clarity just yet. For the Israelites, it will occur only after much suffering, many plagues, and terrible fear, in the midst of a journey from which there is no turning back. And in the midst of all that chaos, they first were able to truly know God ,and then they sang, in the words of the mi kamokha, zeh Eli! “This is my God!”
One need not know God with certainty, and certainly not with clarity, to make that journey – we are all making it every day. What will be, will be, in time. One day you look up and you are suddenly able to see Eternity, and your place in it. Then, on that day, you will be able to see that which you will come to know, and name it.