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Torah Portion

Home > Torah Portion > Shemot

Torah Portion: Shemot
January 19, 2001 24 Tevet, 5761
Rabbi Stephen M Wylen


Moses said to God, "When I come to the Israelites and say to them: ‘Your ancestral God has sent me to you' and they ask me ‘What is His name?' what shall I say to them?" God said to Moses, "Ehyeh-asher-Ehyeh" (variously translated as "I am what I am" or "I am whatever I will be", etc.). God continued, "Thus shall you say to the Israelites, "Ehyeh sent me to you." (Exodus 3:13-14)


The Blessed Holy One said to Moses: "My name you wish to know? I am called according to My deeds." When I judge the world I am called Elohim. When I make war on the evildoers I am called Lord of Hosts. When I repay the evil deeds of men I am called Almighty. When I sit on My seat of mercy I am called Compassionate One. In this vein I am called: Zealous and Avenger and the One who Grants a Heritage and the One who Enriches and the Judge and the Righteous and the Gracious and the Holy and the Faithful and the Powerful and the Great and the Awesome and the like. this is why I am called "I am What I am", for My name is One as it says in the Book of Isaiah "I am Ad-nai, that is My name", and yet I am called by many names according to the multitude of events and times and experiences. I, God, am called according to people's experience of Me at the moment. (Midrash HaGadol, adapted from Midrash Tanhuma, ad loc.)


People experience God in many different ways. Polytheists address each of these experiences of the divine as a separate deity. Monotheists also experience God in many different guises, but we recognize a single force behind our variant experiences.

To the monotheist all contradictions are only apparent. We may experience strict judgment and gracious forgiveness, the horrors of war and the blessings of peace, the fortune of long and prosperous years or the misfortune of few and sorry years. But the contradictions of life are not due to a conflict of heavenly powers, some for us and some against us. Rather the One God of the universe is responsible for all.

We call God by many names, but there is only one God. The unpronounceable name of God, the four Hebrew letters yud-heh-vav-heh, (which God pronounces in the first person with an aleph instead of a yud) represents the true ultimate and unchanging unity of God. The Name is unpronounceable because God's unity is incomprehensible. The many terms we apply to God correspond to our experience of God which is various and full of dualities and contradictions.

The trick is to recognize, or at least acknowledge, the higher Unity. We can only do that when we raise our awareness above the level of our own blessings and sufferings to take in the big picture. The first step in achieving this higher perspective is to place the other ahead of one's self. When we rise above self-concern to concern for others we can perceive the Unity that is God.


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