TORAH 101: Names of our Creator
As we traverse the Scriptures, we come across many “Names” for HaShem, all distinct from each other, and filled with deep significance. As part of the Parashat Bereishit series, join David as he evaluates the first three Names of Hashem as found in Parashat Bereishit.
As we traverse the Scriptures, we come across many “Names” for HaShem, all distinct from each other, and filled with deep significance.
In reading and interpreting the English translations of Scriptures, we can easily lose sight of the significance of each of HaShem’s Names (including the Name “HaShem” which I will save for later – in short, “HaShem” means “The Name”, and is substituted for His Ineffable Name [Y-H-V-H] as is presented in Scriptures, which observant Jews refrain from saying out of awe and reverence). We must always remind ourselves that these Names of HaShem are not in any way like human names. In this world, we are named by our parents, and usually carry that name with us throughout our entire lives. We also collect nicknames by those around us based on a whole variety of circumstances.
On the other hand, no one named HaShem and no one can, except Him. His Names throughout Scriptures are only there because He chooses to reveal them to mankind. Why has He revealed them? Because these Names are ultimately His titles – titles that reflect His attributes that are revealed in Creation, in order to help mankind better understand and comprehend His incorporeal ways. As such, we must learn to treat each title of HaShem with reverence and awe.
Since we’re back to the start of the Torah portions – back at Parashat Bereishit, I figured what better place to get started than with the Names of HaShem brought forth within the first six chapters of the Bible. We see them in the order of: Elohim, HaShem Elohim and HaShem.
The Book of Genesis opens up to introduce us to “Elohim” (“אֱלֹהִים”) (translated as “God” in English) creating the heavens and the earth. All throughout the first chapter, it is “Elohim” that “creates”, “speaks” and “blesses”. Interestingly, the title is in the plural form (hence the suffix “im” “ים”). “Elohim” literally means “Power of powers”, where “El” “אֶל” is the singular form meaning “power”. As such, the title speaks of Authority and Rulership, and is ultimately associated with His Strict Attribute of Justice. Now, why is the name plural? For starters, it in no way speaks of the plurality of Him in any way.
Otherwise, when Elohim would “create”, “speak” and “see”, it would be represented in the plural form, but it isn’t. Rather we see “bara” (“בָּרָא” “created”), “vayomer” (“וַיֹּאמֶר” “said”), “vayare” (“וַיַּרְא” “saw”) and “” (“וַיִּקְרָא” “called”) – all singular forms.
What then is meant by the plurality of the title “Elohim”? It means that “Elohim” – the Supreme Authority, Ruler and Judge of all of His Creation, rules over Creation through various fixed channels of powers. It is precisely the revelation of these powers in the world that drew men towards idolatry – to worship the various elements in nature or the stars and planets, presuming that they had powers of their own. The Book of Genesis comes to tell mankind that these powers are but mere vehicles through which He governs Creation.
Now, when I say that “Elohim” represents the Strict Attribute of Justice, I mean that His means of governing is absolute. There is no mercy, just strict justice. Think of yourself being brought before a strict and merciless judge who knows only to follow the strict law before him, and as a result, you are judged according to the law, nothing more, nothing less. Think also of the natural forces that have been discovered in this universe – gravity, electromagnetism, the weak and strong nuclear forces – these forces are governed by very strict rules that cannot be broken. There is an absolute order in this universe that is governed by our Creator – that is “Elohim”. When we sin, according to His Strict Attribute of Justice, we deserve to die. Were it not for the Strict Attribute of Mercy, that most certainly would be the case.
If “Elohim” represents the extreme of our Almighty Creator’s Strict Attribute of Justice, His opposite extreme is the Strict Attribute of Mercy represented by the title “Y-H-V-H” (“יְהוָה” “Y-H-V-H” “yod-heh-vav-heh” “Tetragrammaton” “His Four-Letter-Name”). So powerful and mysterious is this title that it is referred to as His Name, and as mentioned earlier, observant Jews refrain from saying it out of awe and reverence, instead substituting the Name with “HaShem” (“The Name”) or “Adonai” (“My Lord / Master”).
Where do we learn that the Name “HaShem” is connected to the Strict Attribute of Mercy? We read about this in Exodus 33 and 34, when Moses asked Hashem in Exodus 33:18: “Please, show me Your glory...”
HaShem responded and said: “I shall cause all My goodness to pass before you, and I shall call out with the Name HaShem before you.”
Later, in Exodus 34:5-7, we read: “HaShem descended in a cloud and stood with him there, and He called with the Name of HaShem. HaShem passed before him and proclaimed:
יְהוָ֣ה ׀ יְהוָ֔ה אֵ֥ל רַח֖וּם וְחַנּ֑וּן אֶ֥רֶךְ אַפַּ֖יִם וְרַב־חֶ֥סֶד וֶאֱמֶֽת ׀
נֹצֵ֥ר חֶ֙סֶד֙ לָאֲלָפִ֔ים נֹשֵׂ֥א עָוֹ֛ן וָפֶ֖שַׁע וְחַטָּאָ֑ה וְנַקֵּה֙ לֹ֣א יְנַקֶּ֔ה פֹּקֵ֣ד ׀ עֲוֹ֣ן אָב֗וֹת עַל־בָּנִים֙ וְעַל־בְּנֵ֣י בָנִ֔ים עַל־שִׁלֵּשִׁ֖ים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִֽים׃
“HaShem, HaShem, El [God], Merciful and Gracious, Slow to Anger, and Abundant in Kindness and Truth; Preserver of Kindness for two-thousand, Forgiver of Iniquity and Willful Sin, and Error, and Who Absolves – but does not absolve completely…”
Here, in Exodus 34, HaShem revealed the 13 Attributes of Mercy embedded in His Name “HaShem”.
Speaking of the mystery of the Name, one of the beautiful allusions embedded within the four letters of the Name (“יְהוָה” “Y-H-V-H” “yod-heh-vav-heh”) is that the Name is found in the three terms: “hayah” (“הָיָה” “H-Y-H” “He was”), “hoveh” (“הוֶֹה” “H-V-H” “He is”) and “yihyeh” (“יִהְיֶה” “Y-H-Y-H” “He will be”) – and simultaneously, the three terms are found in the four letters of the Name of HaShem – speaking of His eternal nature. As you say the three terms one after the other, it is as if you are uttering a breath without closing your mouth or pressing your lips together. Only on the word “hoveh” do you gently press your upper teeth against your lower lip. Try it out. Isn’t it interesting that it is on the word “hoveh”, which is in the present tense, where contact is made between the lip and the teeth? I see it as HaShem connecting with us in the “here and now”, while the past and the future are intangible, like the breath, like the wind.
We first come across the Name of HaShem in Genesis Chapter 4 and onward – following the eviction of Adam and Eve from the Garden, and the conception of their first son, Cain. Against this backdrop, you can understand why the Name of HaShem is used. If it wasn’t for the Strict Attribute of Mercy, Adam and Eve would have been condemned to an immediate death for their sin. If it wasn’t for HaShem’s Strict Attribute of Mercy, we would all be lost to oblivion.
As I mentioned earlier, given the significance of the title “HaShem”, it is seen rather as His preferred Name. As such, this Name relates to His essence as the source of all existence. What that means – and this is important – is that even though His first title in the Bible is “Elohim” in relation to His Strict Attribute of Justice, “HaShem” and the associated Strict Attribute of Mercy came first.
HaShem Elohim (“יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים”)
Turning back to Genesis Chapter 2, we uncover the unique title of “HaShem Elohim” (“יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים”).
In Genesis 2:4, it read: “These are the products of the heavens and the earth when they were created on the day of HaShem Elohim’s making of earth and heavens.”
The significance of this dual title combo is that the Name HaShem comes before Elohim, meaning that Hashem’s Strict Attribute of Mercy trumps His Strict Attribute of Justice. Moreover, in the context of the Creation story, it tells us that it is because of Hashem’s Strict Attribute of Mercy that the idea of Creation came into existence, given that the purpose of Creation was ultimately for the sake of Man. As such, Mercy had to and has to prevail over Justice.
At the same time, the combination of the two titles introduces us to the fact that Elohim and HaShem are titles for the one and same entity – our Creator. We are introduced to the titles in series – first as Elohim (in Chapter 1), next as HaShem Elohim (in Chapter 2) and finally, as HaShem (in Chapter 4) – in order to help us make that connection. We are first introduced to the Attribute of Strict Justice that created the definable universe around us (through Elohim); we are next introduced to the combined Attributes of Mercy and Judgment in connection with the creation of Man and Woman before they sinned (through Hashem Elohim); finally, we are introduced only to the Attribute of Mercy after Adam and Eve sinned (Hashem). All that differed throughout is the Attribute that is connected to the associated title – all dependent on the circumstance. Yet it was and is the same Unified Source – our Creator – through it all. And as is revealed through the Name HaShem (“Y-H-V-H”), “He was, He is and He always will be.”