The Diversity of God’s Names
Rabbi Daniela Szuster
“God spoke to Moses and said to him, ‘I am the Lord, I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name YHVH.’” (Sh’mot 6:2-3)
This is the beginning of this week’s parashah. Several questions arise from these words, concerning the names of God. God affirms that he appeared before the patriarchs in a particular way, as El Shaddai, while He reveals Himself before Moses with the name of Adonai (YHVH).
What does this difference in God’s revelations mean? Why did God choose to appear as El Shaddai before the patriarchs and as Adonai before Moses? What do each of these names represent? Is one of them more important than the other? These words hold a large spectrum of mysteries as regards to God’s names.
Rambam (Maimonides) explains these questions arguing that these two names refer to different ways in which God reveals Himself to human beings. In this sense, El Shaddai expresses the divine revelation that manifests in the laws of nature itself, without disrupting its usual operation. Although God revealed Himself to the patriarchs, the world continued functioning as usual.
The name Adonai, on the other hand, expresses the divine revelation manifested through signs and miracles that cause a disruption in the laws of nature. Therefore, El Shaddai and Adonai are two different ways in which divinity presents itself before human beings.
Yehuda Halevi emphasizes that this distinction in names refers to different spiritual needs. The patriarchs did not require any proof or miracles in order to keep their faith in God, while the people of Israel, already more numerous and doubtful, needed great miracles to believe in the creator.
Not only is there a difference between God’s manner of revelation before the patriarchs and Moses but, moreover, we can even find differences among the patriarchs themselves. We can find an example of this in the first blessing of the Amidah prayer: “Blessed are You, O Lord our God and God of our fathers: The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”
One could wonder why it says “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”; aren’t they the same God? According to several sages, God had a very different relationship with each one of our patriarchs, depending on the situation and their personal qualities.
Many other sources in our tradition reflect this idea regarding the different ways in which God reveals Himself and in how human beings approach and conceive the divine. For instance, Midrash Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 110a says, “God is like an icon that never changes, but everybody who looks at it sees something different;” and the Shir ha-Kavod prayer says, “They made parables about you and provided a myriad of visions of You, yet here You are, One in all the different forms”: God is one but each person conceives Him in a different way.
In Shemot Rabbah Parashah 29 it is written: “God’s voice in the strength, in each one’s strength. The young according to their abilities, the old according to their abilities, children according to their abilities. The Lord, blessed be He, said to the people of Israel, not because you heard many voices will you think that there are several gods in the heavens, but rather you will know that I am the Lord, your God: I am the Eternal One, your God” (Deut. 5:6).
Following this source, even the same person can perceive the divinity in very different ways depending on the stages of life he/she is living.
All these sources and the beginning of our parashah, teach us that God does not approach people in the same way and, at the same time, encourage us to think that the fact that each one of us approaches God differently, depending on our very own personal nature, is positive and enriching.
Reflecting on the parashah, we should ask ourselves: What kind of relationship do we have with God? How do we conceive God? What name do we call our Creator? What image makes us feel comfortable? Do we see God as we saw him when we were children?
It is important for us to pursue a continuous religious search, to renew and strengthen, on a daily basis, our bond with the divinity. Just as we grow in different aspects, it is important for us to grow spiritually. May each one of us find our own way to conceive God and approach him.