What’s in a Name?

Va'era By :  Lauren Eichler Berkun JTS Alum (Rabbinical School) Posted On Jan 4, 2003 / 5763

The Book of Exodus is entitled “Shemot” in Hebrew, meaning “Names.” In the first parashah of Shemot, we learned the names of the Children of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob. This week, in the second portion of Shemot, we focus on the names of God. The opening statement of Parashat Va—Era has puzzled Torah commentators throughout many centuries:

“God spoke to Moses and said to him, ‘I am Adonai. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name Adonai'” (Exodus 6:2—3).

At first glance, this divine utterance seems astonishing. Did not God appear to Abraham and proclaim, “I am Adonai, who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land for a possession” (Gen. 15:7)? Did not God appear to Jacob and say, “I am Adonai, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring” (Gen. 28:13)? Why would God tell Moses that His name, Adonai, had never before been known?

As the traditional commentators resolve this interpretive challenge, they probe the multifaceted meaning of a name. The modern Torah scholar Nehama Leibowitz explains the way in which Rashi, Ramban and Ibn Ezra understood the first passage of our Torah portion. She writes, “The passage does not imply that God had not been revealed before to the Patriarchs by this name and that this title was not known to them. What the verse signifies is that one particular aspect of the Godhead was being revealed and that this particular attribute of the Divine had not, till then, been in evidence” (New Studies in Shemot, p. 133). In other words, a name is not merely a title. A name represents a host of characteristics. God signals Moses that the Divine character is being revealed in new ways.

Rashi brilliantly explains this interpretation of the Divine name in his commentary. He writes:

It is not written, “I did not make [my name] known to them,” but rather, “I was not known to them.” I was not recognized by them in My attribute of keeping faith which is implied in My name, Adonai — faithful to authenticate My words; since I made them a promise and did not fulfill it (Rashi on Exodus 6:3).

Here Rashi argues that the name “Adonai” signifies a God who fulfills promises. God promised the Patriarchs that they would inherit the Land of Israel. However, God never fulfilled this promise in their lifetimes. Therefore, they never knew God fully as Adonai — with all that God’s name implies. As God reveals Himself to Moses, God is about to redeem the Children of Israel from Egypt and bring them faithfully to the Holy Land. Now God will truly be known as Adonai.

As I explored the commentaries on God’s name this week, I reflected on a striking law in Maimonides’ Hilchot Teshuvah (Laws of Repentance). Maimonides writes that, “among the paths of repentance is for the penitent to change his name” (Hilchot Teshuvah 2:4). One wonders how taking on a new name could achieve atonement. However, when we recognize that a name signifies the inner attributes of a person and the ways in which a person interacts with the world, we can understand how a “new name” leads to a new path.

This Shabbat, let us think about the many names by which we are known: Doctor, Professor, Chairman, Rabbi, Mommy, Grandpa. What do our names mean to us? What attributes do our titles signify? May God help us to fulfill the promises inherent in our names, just as God upheld the name Adonai and redeemed us from Egypt.

The publication and distribution of the Taste of Torah commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.