Sermon Shabbat Shmot 5780
Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, Arizona
You may be aware of the tendency of Jews who immigrated to America to change their names, particularly last names. Greenberger became Green; Katznelson became Katz, or sometimes Nelson; Beilin became Berlin, and so on. Movie and TV stars were legendary for doing this, of course. Issur Danielovitch became Kirk Douglas; Jacob Garfinkle became John Garfield; Bernie Schwartz became Tony Curtis. Even Jon Stewart Leibovitz became, well, Jon Stewart.
First names, too, changed with the geography. Lazer and Soreh became Louis and Sarah, but they named their kids Sidney and Brenda, and they named their children Steven and Heather. But sometimes things changed in the next generation.
This is an update on a classic Jewish joke about names.
A young boy is walking with his father in the middle of the 21st century. A passerby chats is impressed with their interaction, and says to the father, “Your little boy is so smart and handsome.” And the father says, “Thank you. I'm flattered. And so is my son.” And the stranger says, “What's your son's name?” And the father says, “His name is Shlomo.” The man is taken aback. “Shlomo? What kind of name is Shlomo?” And the father says, well, “He was named after his late grandfather, whose name was Scott.”
Well, this week the name of the Torah portion is Shmot which in Hebrew means “names.” That is, the name is “names.” Which raises an interesting question: how much does what we name someone, or something, matter?
A name is a funny thing. Superficially a name seems unimportant, an arbitrary designation. Would you really be a different person if you had been given a different name?
Yet in another sense names can hold great meaning indeed. William Shakespeare famously has Juliet say, “What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” It would, surely, and yet, names do matter; would that play have been nearly as successful if it was, as Tom Stoppard suggests, called “Romeo and Ethel”?
In Ashkenazic Jewish tradition we never name a child after a living relative, partially out of the superstition that it will be a jinx to both the child and the one he or she is named for. On the other hand, Sephardim often name after living relatives, leading to jokes about all Sephardim being named David ben David ben David on Israeli comedy shows. Some authors are quite good at creating memorable names for characters: Oliver Twist’s life takes many turns; Holly Golightly floats elegantly just above reality. Sometimes names appear to predict greatness; at other times they foreshadow misfortune. Can anyone forget the acronym of the Committee to Re-Elect the President when Nixon ran in 1972—CREEP?
The significance of a name is just as true of places as it is of people. Would the town of Tombstone be quite as infamous if it was called instead “Harmony, Arizona?” And how many of us would like to admit that we were natives of a place named “Oxnard”? Of course, there are places that seem almost miraculously misnamed: Yerushalayim, Jerusalem, means City of Peace, but it has been forcibly conquered 44 times throughout history.
I have just returned from a rabbinic conference that I’ve attended nearly every year for well over 20 years. It is a smallish group, less than 30 of us who meet annually in Colorado at this time of year. And yet, for a short period of time, four or five days, we become a warm, supportive, caring community, who learn together, pray together, share our sorrows and our joys, and grow immeasurably from the experience. It is a true chevrei, in the Hebrew word, an association of diverse people who respect and enjoy one another and always help and support one another. The name of the organization is ONEG, and I can’t for the life of me recall what it stands for; but of course, the Hebrew word oneg means a fulfilling celebration, as in Oneg Shabbat. In this case it’s a particularly appropriate name.
So this week at ONEG we studied a variety of subjects, all intellectually rich and fascinating. We began with this week’s Torah portion of Shmot, the great parsha that begins the Book of Exodus and which Connor will chant for us tomorrow morning. Naturally we looked at the Burning Bush episode that lies at the heart of our portion, and which raises a deep and elusive subject: how do we understand the essence of God? It all begins with what names we use for God.
To explore this question, we turned first to a famous section of Genesis in which Jacob, our patriarchal ancestor, has a great dream of a ladder or perhaps a stairway to heaven, with angels ascending and descending. At the top, God appears, and offers reassurance to Jacob that he will become the father of a great and populous nation, and that the land he is lying on will become his people’s eternal home.
Jacob awakens from this dream and says, “achein, yesh Adonai bamakom hazeh v’anochi lo yadati,” a phrase usually translated as, “Behold, God was in this place and I, I did not know it.” That translation doesn’t truly capture the nuances of Jacob’s statement, in particular the ways he refers to God. First, God’s name here is given as Yud Hay Vav Hay, the holiest four-letter name of God. In addition, the word hamakom is another name of God, meaning “the place,” which seems particularly appropriate since by tradition the place that Jacob is lying on will someday be the location of the Holy of Holies of the Temple in Jerusalem, the “place” where God dwells most intensely in all of Jewish belief.
But most interestingly, when Jacob says, “God was in this place v’Anochi lo yadati,” that is, “and I, I did not know it” he uses Hebrew in a peculiar way. First, he need not actually say Anochi at all, since by saying lo yadati he has already said, “I didn’t know it.” But by adding the grammatically unnecessary extra “I” he has done something that Biblical commentators see as a theological statement, a description of God and God’s essence. That is, he says not “God was in this place and I, I did not know it,” but “God was in this place and Anochi, I did not know God by that name.”
The word Anochi means “I” or “me,” but it means a very specific kind of “I” or “me.” It is a stronger word than the more common basic Hebrew word Ani. It is a word of presence, a definitive “I” if you will, a powerful statement of existence. What God is saying to our father Jacob is, “I exist, and I am here; do not be afraid.” That extra letter, the Hebrew letter kaf, changes the innocuous pronoun ani, I, into an actual name of God, Anochi. In fact, there is a custom among some Jews, Sephardim in particular but also some Chasidim, to make the symbol of the letter kaf with their hands, signifying the presence of God.
Our patriarch Jacob, in one of the great moments of his life, comes to understand God as Anochi, the God who is always present and will be with him through all of his many trials and tribulations. Anochi, the God who is most definitely here.
That name will eventually be the way that God begins the Ten Commandments: Anochi Adonai Elohecha… that is, I, Anochi, am the Lord your God; I, God, am here, now.
And then, in our Torah portion of Shmot this week, Moses has his own first great moment of personal revelation. Like Jacob, the encounter comes as a surprise to him. Unlike Jacob, the meeting with God is not a dream sequence, but occurs in the form of a vision.
Moses is pasturing sheep in the desert when he sees that famous bush that burns but is unconsumed. This Burning Bush is an arresting site, and he turns from his path to approach it. Out of the bush comes the voice of God, and Moses, startled, engages in a long dialogue with God. God urges and finally demands that Moses take up the call to fight for the freedom of the Israelites, that he become God’s emissary to free the Hebrew slaves serving Pharaoh in Egypt. Moses is beyond reluctant to take on this great task, arguing repeatedly that he is unqualified and should not have to go. At one climactic moment in this dramatic dialogue, Moses asks God to identify God’s self, so that Moses can tell Pharaoh—and even the Israelite people—just who is demanding freedom for the slaves.
God’s answer appears to be ambiguous in the extreme: Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, God says, I will be what I will be, or perhaps I am that I am.
Ehyeh shlachani elayich, God continues—Ehyeh sent me, you should say to the people. That’s My eternal name and that’s how I will be remembered from generation to generation. And God also says that the four-letter name, Yud Hey Vav Hey, is a name by which God was not known to Abraham, Isaac or Jacob.
But simply put, that part’s wrong. God was known by that holiest of names to all three patriarchs, and this is not actually a new name at all. What’s going on here? What is God trying to tell Moses?
Again, the commentators weigh in. It’s not the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter-name of God, Yud Hey Vav Hey, that’s a unique new designation, a fresh name for God. It’s actually Ehyeh that’s a new name for God.
So just what does Ehyeh mean? Literally, “I will be.” That is, God is infinite potential, capable of anything, up to and including redeeming the nation of Israel from slavery, splitting the sea, and bringing us to Mt. Sinai and an eternal covenant. Ehyeh, God can do anything. Ehyeh, God is absolute potential, the unlimited divine energy to transform things as they are into things as they should be.
According to this interpretation, Jacob knew God as Anochi, the God who is, the God of what is, a reassuring presence. But Moses comes to know God, through this Burning Bush episode and more elaborately in the next four books of the Torah, as the God of infinite possibility, the God of what will be. It is this not-so-small difference between God as Anochi and God as Ehyeh that transforms an acceptance of what is into the realization that something great can be, and that we have the potential to be part of that greatness.
I believe that this has resonance for each of us. Faith in God as an existent reality is a wonderful thing, Anochi, and it can provide reassurance and support throughout our lives. But belief in a God of infinite possibility, a faith that supports the incredible potential God has implanted in this universe of ours: that is the God of the Burning Bush, the Ehyeh that provides hope and promise that anything can happen if God wills it, the assurance that redemption can come for each of us.
What’s in a name? In this case, it is a gift: a gift of hope in times of distress, of light in times of darkness, of belief in moments of doubt.
On this Shabbat of Shmot, of names, may we each find reassurance, promise and inspiration in our own understanding of Ehyeh, the God of the infinitely possible. And may that knowledge of what can be bring us the hope, and energy, to seek to accomplish true good in our world.