Growing up, I found the idea of God both difficult and distressing. It seemed that I was expected to believe there was an invisible man sitting on the clouds (what my children call a “skywizard”), which did not make sense. I also worried about the idea of someone watching and judging me all the time. It wasn’t until I began my rabbinic studies and learned more of how Jews have understood God that I began to feel comfortable with the concept.
Studying this week’s Torah portion, Vaera, was an important step in that education. In the opening verses, God asserts: “I am Adonai. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make myself known to them by My name Adonai.” While this is not quite accurate (the name Adonai is used in Genesis fairly often), the statement leads to a consideration of why this other name, Adonai, is so important.
In Hebrew, God’s name, which we say as “Adonai,” is spelled with the four letters yod, hay, vav, and hay (YHVH). How it is meant to be pronounced has been lost in time, but there are certain things we do know about what it signifies. First and foremost, it is a form of the verb “to be” indicating causation and means something like, “The One who Causes Being.” I prefer “Source of Being,” but either translation gives you the idea.
In contrast to the old man on the cloud, “Source of Being” does not require a suspension of disbelief. It refers to whomever or whatever started it all and allows us to imagine that in a vast variety of ways. I once heard Carl Sagan say that, at a certain point in his life, he realized that what people called God was what he thought of as the order of the cosmos.
The other profound significance of this name is that it is singular. There is one Source and, therefore, an interconnection and relationship among all existence. This, of course, is what we declare when we recite the Shema. The phrase “Adonai is One,” might better be translated as “Adonai is All-One,” or as the mystical tradition teaches us, “it’s all God.”
We don’t know exactly why this name of God was so important to those who constructed the Exodus story. I can imagine that their vision of liberation required something larger than a deity whose name was tied to a specific place or person. Understanding God as The Source of Being, the power of life and death present throughout creation, makes both God and the Israelites actors on a cosmic stage. The continuing relevance of this story, an astute observation of what it takes and costs to be free, is a tribute to our ancestors’ wisdom and the enduring understanding that emerged from their encounter with the sacred.
–Rabbi Drorah Setel