The Meaning of God’s Names

In this week’s Torah portion, Va’era, the Torah describes the first seven plagues that God brought upon Egypt. The purpose of the plagues was multi-fold. Firstly, and most simply, they were meant to break the Egyptian enslavement of the Israelites, and set the latter free. Secondly, and more importantly, they were meant to reveal God’s complete control over the entire universe, and show how all idolatry was false. There are no other “gods” or powers of any kind, whatsoever. This is the central message of the entire narrative, from start to finish.

In last week’s portion, we read how Moses asks God how he should describe God to the people. God’s reply is: Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, “I Will Be What I Will Be”. God has no name, no form, nor any kind of physical description. He tells Moses to simply inform the people that Moses was sent by Ehyeh – “Will Be”. God Is, Was, and always Will Be. God simply is. He is all things, the infinite force that permeates everything in creation and beyond. Because God is infinite, there is no term that could describe Him, and no “name” that can be applied to Him. This is why God tells Moses that He just is.

However, we do see that there are indeed “names” of God. In fact, there are a multitude of different names that are applied to the Infinite One, and God Himself describes a couple of these names to Moses at the start of this week’s portion. What is the significance of these “names”?

The Names of God

All of the many names that the holy texts use in reference to God are essentially only there to help us understand Him. For example, God’s central name – the Tetragrammaton, made up of the letters yud, hei, vav, hei (י-ה-ו-ה, commonly transliterated as YHWH) – demonstrates God’s eternity. The name is essentially a combination of the conjugations of the verb להיות – “to be” – in all three tenses: past (haya, היה), present (hov’e, הווה), and future (ihyeh, יהיה).

Another name that we are given at the start of our parasha is El-Shaddai. This literally translates along the lines of “the God that is Enough”, or “The Sufficient One”. This is another lesson in monotheism: it is sufficient to have only One God, and no others are necessary.

Other names throughout the Torah include Makom – “Place” – denoting God’s complete omnipresence, and that He is found absolutely everywhere, in all places and all things. (This reminds of a famous adage of the Kotzker Rebbe: “One who does not see God everywhere, does not see Him anywhere.”) Another common name is Elohim – “Powers” – a word that is surprisingly in the plural, yet used in the singular form, again showing that all of the apparent forces present in creation are truly One. Extrabiblical Jewish texts describe God as Ribbono shel Olam, “Master of the Universe”; HaKadosh Baruch Hu, “The Holy One, Blessed be He”; and Ain Sof, “Without End” (ie. the Infinite).

All of these appellations essentially refer to the same things: God is One, eternal, and permeating all things, both within and beyond this universe. None of these are really “names” in the literal sense, but ways to describe God. This is one deeper reason why the Tetragrammaton is never pronounced – instead replaced with Hashem, “The Name” – for how can an Infinite Force be contained within such a finite label like a name?

God informs Moses that this is what He wants the people to understand – both the Israelites and the Egyptians. The primary vehicle for accomplishing this was through the Ten Plagues, which completely shattered the Egyptian conception of polytheism. How the Plagues went about accomplishing this will hopefully be the focus of next week’s post.

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