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Rediscovering A Name We Already Know

01/19/2023 05:39:55 PM


I rotate multiple Humashim (Torah commentaries/translations)  through the prime spot on my desk. Two that have a permanent spot in the rotation are the Orthodox "Artscroll Chumash" that we have been using in our sanctuary, and the Conservative Etz Hayim Humash that we give our B’nai Mitzvah students. The Humashim have very different approaches, not only in how they spell the very title of the book (H vs CH), but also with how they translate the most important word within it, the four-letter name of God, sometimes translated as The LORD. The Artscroll translates it as HASHEM, while the Etz Hayim renders it with Hebrew letters, to indicate that it is a name unto itself and resists simple translation

In some ways, the variations of translation and commentary on the Torah are similar to the variations of God’s name. Each of God’s names has a unique spiritual flavor, reflecting a particular experience of the Divine, and a particular circumstance. The Torah commentary we choose is intimately tied to our experience of the text, and different commentaries each have their place for a given circumstance. I’d like to offer some thoughts on how each of two commentaries approaches a single verse, and how we might use each of them going forward.

This week’s portion, Parashat Va’era starts with an enigmatic passage, from Exodus 6:2-3:

“God spoke to Moses saying  ‘I am the LORD.’ I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name ‘The LORD.’”

Commentators struggle with the meaning of this passage because it makes it seem like God is revealing a previously unknown moniker. In fact, God had used that name with the Patriarchs (for example, in Genesis 15:7, God introduces himself to Abraham by that very name).

The Torah commentaries on my desk interpret the verse in complementary ways. Both start by noting that different names reflect the different ways that we experience God. The Artscroll explains that the “new” name means that the patriarchs had not previously known the aspect of God reflected by that name. It quotes two traditional commentators. It cites Rashi as saying that while the patriarchs knew the name, they did not experience the aspect of God that it reflected. It also quotes Or Hahayim, to explain that Abraham and family knew the name, but only Moses understood its meaning.

The Etz Hayim draws on a much wider range of sources and approaches. It offers some of the same comments offered by the Artcroll,but adds other dimensions. It begins by citing a traditional midrash addressing the meanings of these two names of God.  Elohim is associated with justice, while The LORD is associated with mercy. Moses might deserve punishment for his lack of faith, but God use the name associated with mercy, for that is what His people need at that moment. It further notes that from then on, whenever God speaks to Moses henceforth, it is always with the voice of mercy. But it does not stop there. It cites several modern interpretations as well, including a literary comparison with how similar language was used idiomatically in many ancient texts. By declaring His holiest name in those terms, God was using a turn of phrase that Moses and ancient readers would have immediately recognized as a declaration of ultimate power in the face of a challenge.

To parallel God’s “new” name in Va’era- the Etz Hayim might seem new, but in fact is already quite well known to our families. During COVID, many or our families used the pocket Etz Hayim Humashim that their children had received for Bar Bat mitzvah to follow along with our study, and grew to appreciate its strengths. We began calling pages from both books. I think the Etz Hayim has a particular spiritual value for our community. Since it does not limit itself to the insights of medieval and Orthodox commentators, it can appeal to readers with a wider range of spiritual needs. 

It is with these thoughts in mind that we approach the current urgent need to replenish our supplies of siddurim and humashim available in the sanctuary. Many books worn before COVID, and more were “adopted” during the pandemic. We need to restock to meet the demands of our renewed attendance. Before ordering new Humashim, we reviewed several editions, and brought the question to our Ritual Committee. In the end, we decided to follow God’s approach with His names, of having different options available for different needs.  We have decided to retain the remaining Artscroll Chumashim, but to supplement them with a supply of new Etz Hayim Humashim, choosing the full-size larger print edition suitable for sanctuary use. In  the coming weeks, we will be putting out a call for those who would like to sponsor the replenishment of our holy books, but for now there is an opportunity for a preview. Starting this week, a small number of the new Humashim will be available in our sanctuary. I would encourage you to spend time with one of them. You may enjoy the readability of its translation and the breadth of its multi-level commentary, or appreciate the maps and essays in the back. God, and God’s Torah, can be experienced through so many names and translations. Like Moses, we grow in faith and wisdom every time we encounter a new one.

Fri, December 1 2023 18 Kislev 5784