Reawakening God’s Name
You are not to take up the Name of YHWH your God for emptiness.” (Sinai, one of the Ten Utterances. Exodus 20: 7)
God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am YHWH. I was seen by Abraham, by Isaac, and by Jacob as El Shaddai -- Breasted [Nurturing] God. But by My Name YHWH I was not intimately-known to them. (Exodus 6: 2-3)
“What is the world? The world is God, wrapped in robes of God so as to appear to be material. And who are we? We are God, wrapped in robes of God, and our task is to unwrap the robes, discover – uncover—that we and all the world are God.” (An approximation of the teaching of Menachem Nachum, the Rebbe of Chernobyl, in Me’or Eynaim, “Giving Light to the Eyes.”)
“Nishmat kol chai / tivarekh et-shimcha
The Breath of all life praises Your Name
For Your Name Itself whispers all breath.
(The Shabbat Morning prayer-book, specific words modified for and from a chant by Joey Weisenberg)
What is the Name Itself, anyway? – and what is “emptiness”?
Up front I want to say, I do not believe this Utterance at Sinai means that we should not say "Oh My God!" " or "Good God!" or "For God's Sake!" I think it means something far more profound.
One way to look at this Teaching is to look back to when the Voice first names Godself, speaking to Moses in the Ever-Burning Bush. Moses’ heart lights up in burning passion for the freedom of his people. His heart will not flame out, and yet is not burnt out, is not consumed. (The whole story of Moses at the Bush is in Exodus 3- 4.)
Another way to unlock this riddle is to look at a prayer of today and every day, the Kaddish that arrives in rhythmic timing between each section of a prayer service, and also untimely to tremble at the edge of life and death. It begins by invoking God as “shmei rabbah,” the Great Name.
“What is your Name, Most Holy One?”
“My Name is the Great Name,” comes the answer.
There is a connection, a subterranean connection, between the sense of God that flies up like sparks from the Burning Bush, and the sense of God that is encoded in the Great Name. In order to uncover and trace the connection, let us begin by standing with Moses at the ever-burning Bush..
The Voice that arises like smoke from the fire tells Moses that he must return to the Mitzrayyim (“Narrowdom,” to take the Hebrew name for Egypt seriously) he has fled, to awaken the people and confront the Pharaoh. He must demand their freedom from slavery and their free passage back to their land of origin.
Moses stutters and stammers that he cannot speak well enough to represent either God or the People. And he warns that everyone will say, “Sez who? Who sent you?"
The Voice speaks out three Names as warrants for this moment of great daring.
First: “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh.” "I Will Be Who I Will Be. I Am Forever Becoming.”
When King James appointed a committee to translate the Bible into English, they decided to translate this sentence as, "I Am That I Am." Since they were reporting to a king, it made sense to please him by suggesting that the universe was static. What king would like the universe to change, and keep on changing?
But the Voice was addressing not a king but a revolutionary – – someone who was being called to shake the very foundations of kingship. So the Hebrew – – which was actually in the future tense – – would say that the roots of the universe are Change. Continuous change, for “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” is clearly an affirmation that goes on forever: “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh...”
Then the Voice continues: "Tell Pharaoh you were sent by Ehyeh.” All right, a nickname: The whole sentence is too cumbersome, especially if Moses realizes that its essence is an infinite repetition/ transformation. "I Will Be" is utterly sufficient to get the point across.
And finally, the Voice is somehow able to speak out an impossible Name, a word that has no vowels: “YHWH.”
I invite you to pause and try to pronounce this word, this Name. It is not "Yahweh," for it has no vowels. It is not "Jehovah," for it has no vowels.
For about the last 2000 years, Jewish tradition has taught that we should not even try to pronounce it, but instead substitute the word "Adonai," which means "Lord." This teaching passed into the Greek of the Christian New Testament, where it became "Kyrios." And then it passed into Latin as "Dominus.” But in the beginning, as the flame wavered in the wind and Moses shook in awe, it was certainly not these words of domination.
What was it, then? Modern grammarians have pointed out that it weaves together the letters that make up the Hebrew for the past, the present, and the future of the verb "To Be." So they have suggested that it is a kind of Moebius strip of Being, time turned and twisted to come back upon itself, beyond itself: “The Eternal.”
As one aspect of the Name, rooted in the intellect of words, that is both profound and attractive. Better than "Lord."
But let's go back to trying to pronounce it. When I first, on the spur of the moment, decided to break the rule that said never to try pronouncing it, what came from my mouth was – – YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh. Breathing. Simply a breath.
And when I invited others to "pronounce" these four letters, almost everyone created the same experience: Breathing.
For me, that first moment of saying, "YHWH” by simply breathing – – that first moment was transformative. My first thought was that this made good sense: Surely one of the real Names of the real God should not be in Hebrew, or Egyptian, or Greek, or Latin, or Chinese, or Urdu, or Swahili, or English. It should be in all of them. And there is no sound that vibrates every human tongue except the sound of breathing.
My second thought was that it is not just human languages. Every life form on this planet breathes, and indeed we breathe each other into life. We humans, and all other animals, breathe in what the trees breathe out. The trees breathe in what we breathe out. We breathe each other into life. What could be a truer Name for God?
Let us pause for a moment. These thoughts were themselves my way of dancing in the earthquake of the world. My first, immediate response – not planned but arising in my kishkes, my innards, my gut -- was to connect with other cultures, other religions, other languages. Surely they have a stake in what is the Name of God!
But this was not what I had been taught was Jewish wisdom. Rather, I had been taught that our relationship with YHWH was unique. Asking about God’s Name in other languages was precisely the wrong question. Even worse than daring to pronounce the “Unpronounceable Name.”
Wait! Once I rippedaway the command not to pronounce the Name, the sudden reality arose: “Pronouncing” it was not just forbidden, but impossible. Unless you thought just breathing was “pronouncing.” It suddenly became clear that the prohibition was against even trying to pronounce it.
Why? The point was exactly that daring to “pronounce” the Name, to breathe it, was dangerous. Pronounce the Name that could not be pronounced, and it instantly became apparent that this Name, the Breath, this Wind, this Hurricane, this Spirit was universal. The Jewish People had no patent on it. If the Name could shatter Pharaoh’s power, it could endanger any domineering social structure that subjugated any people, every people. Even a structure that lorded it over the Jewish People.
How clever then -- not wise, but clever -- centuries later, to replace the Breathing with a word, “Adonai,” that meant “Lord.” Convenient to borrow the controlling social symbols of the Roman Empire to control this somewhat maverick community within the Empire.
Even more appropriate when Christianity took over/ was taken over by the Empire to translate “YHWH” with “Kyrios” in Greek and “Dominus” in Latin. If you want to dominate, name what is most sacred “Dominus.”
And my second thought, I realized, was yet more dangerous. Does this Name of Interbreathing mean that not only human beings count? Does this Name mean that frogs and ferns, rabbits and redwoods, bugs and bacteria, also count? Could this Name dislodge the centrality of Homo sapiens and make us a thread in the great woven prayer-shawl of the universe, the One, Echad?
“Sh’sh’sh’ma Yisrael, Yahhhh elohenu, Yahhh echad! – Hush’sh’sh and Hear, You Godwrestlers, the Breath of Life is our God -- the God of us all, all life; the Breath of Life is ONE!”
Back to the biblical story. When Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh, saying "Let my people go!" Pharaoh says indeed what Moses had predicted: "Sez who?” Moses responds by simply breathing. Pharaoh sneers, "So that's your god? I never heard of him or her, like Isis or Osiris. Doesn't stack up against the River Nile and all the other gods of Egypt – including, of course, Me.”
Moses goes to the Godwrestling people, the People Yisrael. He tells them their God has a new name, a Name that echoes the breath, the wind, the spirit all around them. He urges them to invoke this name to demand that Pharaoh let the people go. Pharaoh becomes furious, makes life even harder for the Hebrew- speaking slaves. The people, in their first attempt to organize Brickmakers Union Number One, crumple.
Up to that point I am citing the text. (Exodus 5: 1 to 6: 3) But the written text is not enough. ancient rabbis said the Torah was not written in black ink upon white parchment but in black fire on white fire. Learn to read both fires, they said. The black ink, black fire, is the text. The white spaces between the lines and letters is white fire. In its blankness we can light up Midrash. New stories, new light, new reinterpretation in every generation.
And now the blank passages of parchment flame ino white fire: Midrash:
The Voice calls Moses aside once more.
"You told them I have a new Name, but you didn't really make it stick. You are so soft-hearted that you could not bear to insist when many of them said they were used to the old Name and would keep on using it. So, Moses, let me tell you clearly: the reason that your organizing failed was that it takes a new Name, a new understanding of the universe, for people to be able to reshape the world.
"The old Name was certainly important for its time. El Shaddai, “The Many-Breasted God,” was fine for calling on abundance, for inspiring shepherds and farmers who needed reassurance that Mother Earth would still pour forth her milk. For Abraham and Sarah, for Isaac and Rebekah, for Jacob and his wives, the God of nourishing was nurturing. But now your people have been enslaved. They work not to grow food in the fields but to build warehouses for the food that others grow. Their lives are different, and they must search out a different Meaning if they are to make change possible.”
So from this unfolding story that begins at the Burning Bush, we realize how crucial naming and renaming can be. -- God's Name-change in the crackle of flames at the Burning Bush is crucially connected with Moses' ability to begin liberating the people from slavery.
This is a lesson for today. For we see there is an intimate connection between freeing the peoples of today, resisting the Pharaohs of today, restoring an Earth to be no longer plagued by the pyramids of power that we know today, and "renaming" God - that is, coming to a deeply new understanding of the world.
At such moments, there likely will be struggles between those who want to address God and understand the world in new frameworks, and those who are satisfied: "Give me the old-time religion; it was good enough for Grandpa, it's good enough for me."
Today, many people find some of the old ways of naming God – Lord above all, King of the Universe, Judge of the recalcitrant -- no longer adequate or honest.
Through this metaphor, we are defining ourselves as subjects, slaves, to a ruler whose powers we have no way to exercise or challenge.
But in a generation when human beings can destroy life on this planet, can splice DNA to create species as radically new as the spider-goat, can overthrow Pharaohs -- all the powers we once located in a Ruler far beyond us - it no longer seems truthful to invoke such metaphors.
And many women, with some men, have pointed out that the old metaphors for God are overwhelmingly and pointedly masculine, bespeaking men's spiritual experience but rarely women's.
What then? Some people have poured scorn on the whole enterprise, rejecting the God-word, perhaps identifying "biological evolution" or "the historical process" as the only sources of creativity and justice. We might say that those become new names of God. Few call them that because they seem -- or their proponents claim -- they are discoverable, reducible, weigh-able. They do not trail clouds of Mystery.
Others have renamed God as the "Infinite Thou" (Buber), "the Power that draws us toward salvation" (Kaplan), "the Wellspring of Life" (Falk), "the Ground of Being" (Tillich), perhaps "the Web of Relationship" (some feminists).
As for me, I go back to that moment of the Burning Bush, reasserted in the Narrow Space of Egypt: "YHWH” pronounced as “Yahhhh," the "Breath of Life, the Breathing-spirit of the world" (In Hebrew that is ru'akh ha'olam, and ru’akh is the only Hebrew noun that can take a verb either feminine or masculine. It means, “breath, wind, spirit.”). We know the Name of “Yahhhh” when it comes as “Hallelu-Yahhhh:” “Let us praise the Breath of Life.“
That is the Name that awakened the Utterance at Sinai: ”You are not to lift up the Name of YHWH your God for emptiness.” (Exodus 20: 7)
“Breathe. Breathe My Name. For every breath you take, you and the frogs, you and the thorny rose-bush, you and the redwoods -- in every breath you say My Name. Do not say it empty-headed, empty-hearted.
“We, the heirs of modern science, know with more precision than our farmer/ shepherd forebears that we humans, we animals, need to breathe in the oxygen that the trees and grasses breathe out. They need to breathe in the CO2 that we breathe out. All around our green-blue Earth, the Breath of Life, YHWH, is Echad—One.
“And in this generation of your lives upon this planet, be utterly aware: Th Interbreathing between the animals and vegetation, the Interbreathing of Oxygen and CO2 -- that breathing is in crisis. Some of you human earthlings insist on sending more CO2 into My Name, My planetary Breath, than all Earth’s vegetation can transmute to Oxygen. The build-up of CO2 heats up my Earth far more than it, and you, can bear. What you call the climate crisis is a crisis in the Name of God.
“Be awed, but not surprised. For this crisis is the Turning Point in all of human history. At last you know enough to nurture the Interbreathing of all the myriad life-forms of your planet. And at last you know enough to wreck the planet.
“Do not lift up my Name for emptiness! Every one of you, be conscious that each breath you take breathes in and out My Name. And all of you together, be conscious that the Interbreathing that you share will doom, or heal, the life of all of you.”
When I say to people that the climate crisis is a crisis in God’s Name, they gasp. Appropriate: a breath caught just as Earth is gasping, “I can’t breathe!” And then they breathe in a new way. For suddenly the climate crisis has become both more awesome and more intimate.
And when we talk about what it means to give up “Lord” and “King” in favor of “Interbreathing Spirit,” something else important happens.
People begin to get past their anger at the “Angry God,” the “Angry King Who Punishes.” They begin to see the Breath as interweaving Act and Consequence. Karma. Enslave human beings and Earth is plagued and plagues you – because the Breath links every body.
As people absorb this -- for many, new – way of thinking about God, many soften their rigidity against all talk of God. They can open themselves to examining what is wise and what is not, instead of bristling at the very word of “God.” They don’t surrender, nor do I want them to. But exploration becomes possible.
Now I want to turn to the other mysterious Name I mentioned, encoded in the Kaddish -- tinged even more with Mystery than “YHWH.” The Kaddish is one of the most frequent prayers in Jewish life. It is used to mark transitions: the shift from one aspect of prayer to another; the conclusion of a session of learning Torah; the onset of mourning for the dead, when they die and on the anniversaries forever after.
Every Kaddish begins by naming God “Shmei rabbah, the Great Name.” ”May the Great Name be lifted higher, still more holy.”
For years this puzzled me.
And then I visited the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC. The Memorial is simply names: 65,000 names of the American dead, not even counting the million dead in Vietnam whose names Americans do not know.
All those names, carved into great slabs of stone, making up one Great Name.
And what came to me was that “shmei rabbah, the Great Name” of the Kaddish, is the weave of all the names of all the beings, past and present and those yet to be –- all the beings of the universe. Every galaxy and every quark. Every human, every frog, and every buttercup.
This understanding of the Great Name bears a family resemblance to YHWH as the Great Interbreathing. Both of them see God embodied in and rising from all the myriad beings of the Universe.
Just as each of us breathes our unique breath into the holy Interbreathing, each of us, the singular and individual name of each of us, lives in that One Great Name. And that one name lives within us, too. In the same way, within our body every different organ bears the DNA that speaks our personal Unity, and yet each organ has its own name, its own purpose, its own identity. Each organ has unfolded from the One where we began, and each must – in attunement with the others -- celebrate its uniqueness. God forbid that my brain should strive to imitate my liver! The uniqueness of each organ, each person, each life-form, is crucial to us all. The flow of all together is crucial to each one.
What might it mean to dance with this Great Name of Interbreathing in the earthquake of our lives?
- If you choose to say a blessing in the Jewish mode, in Hebrew or in any other tongue of its translation, make just two gentle changes from the conventional words. Lift up the first words of the incantation this way: “Baruch atah Yahhhh eloheynu, ruach ha’olam --- Blessed are You, Creator God, Yahhh, Interbreathing Spirit of the universe.“
- Add to whatever other religious, spiritual, or cultural practices that we find life-giving this affirmation of our own place in the Great Name: Set aside a time each day to weave together the names we recall from our own lives that we can weave together into the Great Name.
Lift up the names of some beings who have been your teachers. Some may be human beings -- a long-dead grumpy cousin; a wise beloved pastor; a singer of the songs you came to love. Others, a turtle sunning itself on a rock; a full moon; a stinging jelly-fish; a howling dog that woke the neighborhood. Give each a name, and weave those names into your own small and local pattern of the Great Name.
Lift up the names of some beings you have taught and changed. Weave those names as well into your own small portion of the Great Name.
Lift up your own name. Find just the right place in your woven pattern to receive it.
Then take the whole pattern you have woven andplace it in the heart of you. Your name glimmers, along with many others, in the Great Name; and the Great Name glows within you.
- Setting aside a time each day to meditate on the inflow/ outflow of our Breathing.
There are three brief passages of Jewish prayer that might help us remember.
“Elohai nishama sheh-natah bi tehorah hi. My God, the Breath you have given me is clear.”
Stand or sit quietly following the breath as It enters your own mouth and nose, journeys to your own lungs, is carried by your bloodstream to brain and arms, to legs and belly, genitals and skin, and back to lungs and mouth and nose to be breathed out.
“Nishmat kol chai, tivarekh et shim-cha, Yahhhhh eloheynu. The Breath of all life praises Your Name, for your Name Itself whispers all life, Our God.
Follow your Breath as you breathe it out, as it merges with the out-breaths of every animal on Earth, as it enters the leaves of every plant, as its CO2 solidifies into the living carbon of root and branch and flower and seed, and as each plant breathes out oxygen for you and every animal to in-breathe Hear each human, each plant, each animal whisper, “OUR God.”
“Kol ha’neshama t’hallel Yah, Hallelu-YAH! Every breathing celebrates the Breath; let us all celebrate YAH, the Interbreath!”
- Set aside at least one hour every week to take one act to give new life to the Interbreath of oxygen and CO2 that keeps all life alive. Nurture a garden. Plant a tree. Write a Senator. Picket the entrance to an oil-company headquarters. Move your money from a bank that invests in coal mines to one that invests in windmills. Solarize your house.
What connects these approaches to the Name? They all hear the Great Name in us, among us, connecting us. One Great Name. One shared Breath.
What would it mean to lift up the Name in emptiness? Breathing with no awareness that each breath connects us with all life. Forgetting that my own name and the names of all those beings who taught me, loved me, rebuked me, learned from me, drew life from me are all present in the Great Name and all bear the Great Name within them.
”You are not to lift up the Name of YHWH your God for emptiness.”