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Two Ways of Meeting God

  • Two Ways of Meeting God

    Va-eira, Exodus 6:2−9:35
D'var Torah By: 


The parchment inside the mezuzah contains two names of God. On the outside of the scroll is the name Shaddai, often translated as "God Almighty." Inside the parchment, the first line of the Shema bears the sacred name YHVH, which we read as Adonai.

Both these names appear in this week's Torah portion. God tells Moses: "I am YHVH. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name YHVH." (Exodus 6:3) However, when we read earlier passages in the Torah about the patriarchs and matriarchs, both names of God were already mentioned. What does Moses learn about the name YHVHthat was unknown before?

Two clues shed light on this question, the first of which comes from the mezuzah. We encounter El Shaddai through phenomena of nature; just as it appears on the outer surface of the mezuzah scroll, this divine name draws us outside of ourselves to behold God's majesty in the world. But the name YHVHis more hidden: Nestled deep within the folds of the parchment, we find it only through an inward journey to the center of our soul.

The patriarchs and matriarchs devoted their lives to the creation of our people. Their times called more for action than for introspection, and so they perceived God primarily as El Shaddai. But Moses, a solitary, introverted shepherd, was suddenly confronted with the mission of redeeming his people from slavery. He did not feel adequate for this task, being a man of "impeded speech." (Exodus 6:12, 30) Therefore, God beckoned him to look within, to discover the redeeming power of YHVHin the depths of his own being.

The Talmud puts the difference this way: Whereas the patriarchs perceived God through a hazy lens, Moses saw through a clear lens. (Yevamot 49b) The founders of our people were prisms that refracted divine light outward to the world; but Moses absorbed that same light to find inspiration from within.

The second response to our question concentrates not on the divine names themselves but on the ways we understand them. Notice that God "appeared" to the patriarchs but "was known" to Moses. Appearances come to us from the outside world, registering upon our senses. But when something essential is known to us, the knowledge penetrates within us and makes us feel "centered." As the chasidic master Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev taught regarding this verse in our parashah: "Knowing is the language of adhesion." (Kedushat Levi 97a) The patriarchs and matriarchs experienced God's presence; Moses felt God's embrace.

Moses knew that his people needed him; he knew that he alone could do what had to be done, and he was afraid. Even though he had encountered the power of El Shaddai in the world, he still felt inadequate and alone. But once he came to know the warmth of YHVH radiating from the innermost parchment of his soul, he found the resolve for the work that would govern the rest of his life. Perceiving God beyond him and clinging to God from within, Moses was prepared for the challenges to come.

For further reading: Moses: the Revelation and the Covenant, Martin Buber (New York: Harper, 1958).

Rabbi Lawrence Englander is the rabbi at Solel Congregation.

The Many Names for the One God
Davar Acher By: 
Lauren Resnikoff

In this week's parashah, God becomes known to Moses through a new name, YHVH. As Rabbi Lawrence Englander points out, this name of God, YHVH, can be found in the parchment inside the mezuzah case, in the words of the Shema: Shema Yisrael, YHVH Eloheinu, YHVH Echad. When we recite these words, we are proclaiming that God is One.

There is a tradition that when we recite the Shema, we cover our eyes. One explanation for this tradition comes from the idea that while we each "see" God differently, we come together to proclaim that God is One. Cover your eyes and recite the Shema. How do you "see" God? Try this exercise again in one week; in one month. Do we see God differently at different times of our lives? For example, how do we view God when facing an illness? At the birth of a child? Upon seeing a rainbow? How is it in our Torah portion that Moses comes to view God differently?

God has chosen to become revealed to Moses through the name YHVH. What is the significance of this name, or any of the various names of God? In the Torah alone there are seventy names for God. It is through these various names that we come to know God. We know God as Eloheinu-Our God; Oseh Shalom-Creator of peace; Melech Haolam-Ruler of the universe; Avinu Malkenu-Our Father our King; El Shaddai-God Almighty. We have so many names for one God because it is not possible to fully describe God using our language.

How do these names, and the other names of God with which you are familiar, help you to connect with God?

Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver suggests that God's name change in this parashah resembles the ancient pagan custom of changing or adding to the name of a deity to indicate that the deity had taken on a new or additional role. Silver proposes that God is now known by a new name because God is now about to take on a new role for the Israelites.

How does the new name, YHVH, reflect the role God is now undertaking? Have you ever had an experience, like Moses, when you came to know God by a different name?

Although we all pray to one God, we each know God differently. We learn from this parashah that how we come to know God can help to prepare us for the challenges we face.

For further reading: A Torah Commentary for Our Time, Harvey J. Fields (New York: UAHC Press, 1991).

Lauren Resnikoff, RJE, is the Director of Education at Temple Beth David, Commack, New York.

Reference Materials: 

Parashat Va'era, Exodus 6:2-9:35

When do we read Va-eira

2020, January 25
28 Tevet, 5780
2022, January 1
28 Tevet, 5782
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