What’s in a Name?
Odds are good that you know your names. You received one or more names at birth, and maybe you changed name at marriage, divorce or another formative moment. Maybe you also have one or more nicknames, private terms of endearment with a partner or friend, childhood monikers, familial titles (“Mom,” “Uncle,” “Grandma”), and professional titles or other honorifics (“Doctor”). All of these names are laden with history and meaning – if only because they’re yours and help people relate to you.
Names are important for just that reason: they encode history, meaning, role and relationship. In this week’s Torah portion (Lech Lecha), God decrees that Avram becomes Avraham (Gen. 17:5) and Sarai becomes Sarah (Gen. 17:15). Their name changes depict that God is with them publicly – literally in their names. The added letters in AvraHam and SaraH evoke the Hebrew “H” representing divinity.
If Abraham and Sarah have new names, what about God? This week’s Torah portion offers not one but six names for God. Torah presents God as the ineffable YHVH (Gen. 12:1), El Elyon (“God of the Most High”) (Gen. 14:19), YHVH Elohim (“Supernal YHVH”) (Gen. 15:2), El Roi (“God who sees me”) (Gen. 16:13), El Shaddai (“God of Sufficiency”) (Gen. 17:1) and Elohim (“Supernal”) (Gen. 17:9). Later, Moses would learn a seventh name for God, Eyheh Asher Ehyeh (“I will be what I will be”) (Ex. 3:14).
This multiplicity of names – each encoding history, meaning, role and relationship – means that no divine name is absolute. It means that as a matter of essence, God cannot “be” only YHVH, or El Elyon or Elohim. It’s not just that all of us are more than our names (and how much more so for God!). Even more, it means that God – while a singular unity – connotes countless qualities (in Hebrew, partzufim) like the infinite faces of a single shimmering crystal. It also means that God is an ever evolving and ever becoming that defies the pinning-down limitation of any singular name.
But names are still important, because we humans need names to encode history, meaning, role and relationship. We’ve been naming things since the mythic Garden of Eden: it was the primordial Adam that gave names to all creatures to seek relationship with them (Gen. 2:20). We’ve been at it ever since.
Naming for relating is more art than science. It means we can call God by any of Torah’s names – or many others both traditional and modern – for the qualities that these names encode in our evolving relationship with the infinity we name God to be. We can call God Melech (“king”) to invoke a sovereign, Avinu (“Our Father”) to invoke an ideal parental love, or Avinu Malkeinu (“Our Father, Our King”) to invoke both together. We can call on Chei HaOlamim (“The Eternal Life”), HaRachamim (“The Compassionate One”), HaRofeh (“The Healer”) or Dayan HaEmet (“The True Judge”). God is all of these and more, and also God is none of these alone.
This is what Avram (er, Avraham) did: he “invoked God by name” (Gen. 13:4). We can do likewise in very personal ways, in our very human lives of love and longing so much greater and grander than any name we could imagine.