Sunday, January 17, 2010

Different Names, Different Attributes

In last week's Torah reading, God said to Moshe (Ex. 6:2-3):

אני יקוק וארא אל אברהם אל יצחק ואל יעקב בקל שקי ושמי יקוק לא נודעתי להם.
I am the Lord (A-do-nai). I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty (E-l Shad-dai), but by My name Lord (A-do-nai) I was not known to them.
The traditional commentators explain that this is not just about what names people used to refer to God. Rather, it means that God interacted with the Patriarchs using one attribute (making promises, acting within the laws of nature, creating the universe) and was not introducing a different attribute to the Jewish people (fulfilling promises, performing miracles, sustaining the universe). R. Shmuel Goldin (Unlocking the Torah Text: Shmot, pp. 42-43) explains:

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While the specific distinction between the titles E-l Shad-dai and A-do-nai is the subject of dispute, almost all major commentaries agree that the differing names for God reflect a phenomenon of partial revelation. Through the use of these titles, God reveals, in limited fashion, specific aspects of His being to man. This phenomenon of partial revelation is not unique, however, to the conversation between God and Moshe at the beginning of Parshat Va'eira. According to rabbinic tradition, various titles used for God throughout the Torah reflect different dimensions of His character...

The fundamental question, however, remains: Why are these partial revelations necessary in the first place? Why can't the Torah consistently use one title to portray all aspects of God's being in a unified fashion?

The most familiar example of this phenomenon of partial revelation can provide the clearest answer. As indicated by the Midrash, the title A-do-nai is used in the text to represent God's attribute of mercy, while the title E-lo-him is used to convey God's attribute of justice.

In our world, justice and mercy are, in their purest forms, mutually exclusive. One simply cannot be all-just and all-merciful at the same time. If you show mercy, you are, by definition, bending justice. If you are totally just, mercy has no place. For these concepts to coexist, each must sacrifice a bit of its purity...

The rules are different, however, in the heavenly realm. Although we cannot comprehend how, God is all-just and all-merciful at the same time. These concepts coexist in the dominion of the divine without either losing any of its strength.

To convey the undiluted purity of the Godly attributes of justice and mercy, the Torah singles out one quality at a time, dependent upon circumstances. Only through this singularity can the Torah express the full force of each particular characteristic. To us, it appears as if God is acting solely through the attribute being mentioned.

In similar fashion, other divine attributes are singled out in the Torah through the use of God's various names, each title allowing us to focus on one specific aspect of God's being.

We are then challenged, however, to put the pieces together and gain a view, albeit distant, of the whole of God's essence, to recognize that in the realm of the divine, conflicting forces combine without a weakening effect.

By using God's names to reveal pieces of His essence in partial fashion, the Torah ironically underscores the complexity of the whole. In the final analysis, the glimpses of God provided to us by the Torah text only serve to heighten His mystery.

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