Names of God - Rabbi Adina's Erev Rosh Hashanah Drash
Erev Rosh Hashanah 5779/ 2019
Berkeley Community High Holy Day Services, JCC East Bay
Rabbi Adina Allen
We are each here for many reasons. We come to reconnect to parts of ourselves that we’ve been distant from or to connect to others in community. We come to be inspired by all that is good and hopeful in the world; and to be agitated into action to make our world better than it is. We come for comfort from a tradition that we know so well; or to struggle against a faith we’re not sure we believe in. We come for our parents or grandparents; we come for ourselves. We come to pay homage to our history; we come to create the future of what this tradition will look like 100 years from now. We come to be seen by God; we come to blend in as a part of a larger whole. And we come for reasons, some of which we can’t name or understand.
We come to reflect on our past and notice where we are in the present so that we might shift the course of our future.
The Talmud teaches that there are four actions that are especially powerful in this process of course correction: giving tzedakah, crying out in prayer, changing our actions and... changing our name (Rosh Hashanah 16b). Acts of charity, heartfelt prayer, starting to do things differently in our life, these all make sense as acts that could change our future - they elicit empathy for others, open our heart, and help to reconnect us with something bigger and beyond ourselves, they are a way of starting new, healthier patterns in our life. And yet, changing one’s name is regarded as powerful as these three other acts.
What does it mean to change our name? And how can changing our name change who or what we are?
The Talmud bases this teaching on a midrash, or rabbinic story, on the biblical characters Abraham and Sarah and their famous name change. It says that when God told Abraham - at the point named Avram - that he would bear a son from his wife Sarah - then, Sarai - Avram looked into the stars and saw that he and his wife could not have any children. God responded by telling Abraham that, yes, Abram could not have children, and yes, Sarai could not give birth…...however Abraham and Sarah could. Avram and Sarai’s name change makes the previously impossible possible and changes the course of their future.
Our commentators have tried to explain this in different ways. The Ran, Nissim ben Reuven of Girona, holds that the function of a name change is to inspire a person to do teshuva. By beginning with the fresh start of a new name, a person may be more inclined to believe that the challenging work of making amends for wrongs done is possible. The Maharsha, Rabbi Shmuel Eidels, offers that the purpose of a name change is to change to a person’s luck. He draws his proof from a midrash on Sarah and Abraham’s name change in which God says, “אני קורא לכם שם אחר וישתנה המזל” “ I call you by a new name and your luck changes” (Rashi on Genesis 15:5). New name, new fortune. We might say, that it was neither of these. Rather, Avram looked to the stars, meaning he opened his vision to a wider reality, to that place of all possibilities.
What new possibilities do you want to invite in? What new names are calling?
In the Torah, names are powerful. Names that parents give to their children instill hopes and aspirations for the child’s life, or mark the feelings of the parents at the time of the birth - they are a reminder of what is or a wish for what might yet be. Names that our biblical ancestors gave places marked their significance. After dreaming of angels flying up and down on a ladder, Jacob names the place where he had the dream Beth El - house of God. Naming makes an ordinary piece of ground a sacred site. It is a way of acknowledging and honoring an experience that was important and a relationship that is unfolding.
Names in Jewish tradition are given with intentionality, yet they are anything but static. There are times in which names can and, in fact must, change in order for our identity to evolve. Abraham and Sarah’s name change allows them to take on their new role as partners with God in birthing the Israelite nation. After his famous struggle with the angel, Jacob’s name is changed from Yakov, meaning heal, to Yisrael, one who wrestles with God. As Rashi explains, Your name shall no longer be Jacob” – people will no longer say about you that you received the blessings through trickery and deceit (the meaning of “Jacob”), but rather with striving and openly (the meaning of “Israel”) (Rashi 32:29).
Names have the power to root us to our past - for better or for worse - and to create the future. In Genesis we read, “And God saw the light was good and God called the light day and the darkness God called night.” The world is created through words, and, specifically through naming. Names allow something to function in a certain way. Once named, day and night begin to mark the daily cycle of time, creating evening and morning. Just as God creates through naming so too do we, humans created b’tzelem Elohim, in the imagine of the Divine, have the power to create through naming.
At this auspicious time in our calendar when the channel between heaven and earth is open and Divine connection becomes more possible, we are reminded that, just as we have multiple and changing names, so does God. On this holiday of fresh starts and possibility, we might consider not only which of our names, literally or metaphorically, need changing. But also, which names of God.
In the Torah, God is one, but is called by many names: Mountain, breasts, rock, father, Compassion, Presence, Redeemer, Womb, Peace, King. We have the power and the responsibility to decide what we call God. Just as we call people and places according to important encounters, histories, hopes and aspirations, so too can we call God. In our calling we call forth the qualities and attributes that we name.
In her book Discovering Kwan Yin, the writer Sandy Boucher says this about how aspects of spirituality emerge a culture, “They come in through people - individuals who recognize a particularly compelling expression of our humanity in practice, a divine figure, a belief, a system, and make it real in their lives.” “We are all invited to become familiars with any manifestation of a divine force and to add what we learn to the rich story pool that animates human imagination,” writes Dr. Pat Allen in Art is a Spiritual Path. God is what we make God, what we bring into this world. Just as we are ever-changing, always in process, so too is God.
Amidst the many names for God, there is one that is perhaps most central. When Moses encounters God at the burning bush and asks, “When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?” God answers, “tell them that Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh sent me to you” (Exodus 3:14). The translation is “I will be that which I shall be sent me to you.” This is how God self identifies. And this name reveals the truth of the relationship between God and us - for how will God be what God will be except through our actions? God is process, God is in process, and we and God are in process together birthing the reality in which we live.
This is our holy task: to invite in the future we seek. As Torah teaches, “It is not in the heavens or beyond the sea, but in our mouths and heart to do it” (Deuteronomy 30:13). This year may we grow quiet and open enough to hear the new names that are calling and may we be courageous enough to welcome them in.