Jewish tradition identifies four categories of being that make up our world. First we consider the inanimate, mineral realm such as stones; they are called “domem – the silent ones.” Then we consider the plants; they are called “tsomeyach – the sprouting ones.” Then we consider the animals; they are called “chai – the living ones.” And then we get to humans, and what are we called? “M’daber – the talkative ones.”
In the opening passages of the Hebrew Bible, we have two tellings of the story of creation. In first telling, in Chapter One, we read how in the first three cosmic days the Creator brings into being and gives names to day and night, sky, land, and seas. Against that backdrop, all vegetation comes into being. On the fourth day we get the great luminaries for day and night, that is the sun and moon, and also the stars. On the fifth day the seas and the sky come to life with fish and fowl. The sixth day brings forth cattle, insects, and wild animals of every kind. And then comes Adam, made from adamah, the first human made from the humus. (Not from the hummus, a common mistranslation.) Adam – a dual gendered humanity – is given power to rule over the other creatures and to enjoy a vast vegetarian feast. And when the heaven and the earth are finished, and all their array, the Creator rests and blesses the seventh day, and we have Shabbat.
In the second telling of the tale, in Chapter Two, the Creator forms the human from the soil and breathes life into him, and places him in Gan Eyden, the Garden of Eden, to work it and to watch over it. Realizing that it’s not good for a man to be alone, the Creator forms beasts of the field and birds of the sky and brings them to the human to see what he would name them – leerot mah yikra lo. (Gen 2:19) In this telling, surprisingly, the Creator gives away the power of naming and gives that privilege to the human who assigns names to all the other creatures. But of course none of the animals are exactly the kind of companion a man needs, so the next creature brought into being is woman, and the rest is history, or herstory, and the plot thickens.
So Adam, who is m’daber – a talkative one – uses his extraordinary skill of speech for the first time not for prayer nor deal making, not for courtship nor small talk, but for naming. Adam sees a tail-wagging quadruped and declares, “keylev,”or “canis familiaris,” or dog, hound, pooch, or “Lassie,” “Rover,” “Sally,” “Wiley,” “Snoopy,” “Rin-tin-tin.”
And so we humans have this penchant for naming. Discover a new plant or star – give it a name. Bring home a new puppy or a baby – give it a name. Some people give names to their houses, their cars. We love to be the name generator.
In the words of the machzor we declare, “You are holy and awesome is Your Name – Kadosh atah v’norah sh’mecha.”
Ancient societies did not shy away from assigning names to their deities. Pantheons across the world have been populated by thousands of colorful figures with fascinating names deriving from the worlds’ many thousands of languages.
The Torah gives us two primary ancient names for the Divine: Elohim, which has come to be associated with midat hadin, the attribute of justice, and the unpronounceable Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey, for which we say HaShem or Adonai and associate with midat harachamim, the attribute of compassion. What were once rival deities among many god and goddesses worshipped in ancient Israel and Judah have become two complimentary aspects of a nuanced concept of Divine Reality. (See The Triumph of Elohim, pages 117-9)
When we sing the Aleynu we give voice to the prophet Zecharyah’s vision: Va-yom ha-hu yihiye Adonai echad u’shmo echad (Zecharyah 14:9). Zecharyah lived two and a half thousand years ago in the reign of Darius of Persia, who permitted the Judeans to return to their homeland after the Babylonian exile. Zecharyah’s prediction that one day would see “Adonai echad u’shmo echad” strikes me as a theological and political slogan of his time: Y-H-V-H is the one god, and has only one name.
Thousands of years later, the Kabbalists expand on this idea of the separation and desired union of the Divine and the Divine Name, giving it a mystical meaning. On Friday nights we sing L’echa Dodi, the beautiful love song to the Sabbath written by 16thcentury poet Shlomo Alkabetz, declaring, “Adonai echad u’sh’mo echad l’sheym u’l’tiferet v’lee-t’hila – HaShem is One and His Name is one for renown, for splendor and for praise.”
Over the millennia, many other names have arisen in our tradition, including: HaMakom – the Cosmic Place; Av Harachamim – Compassionate Father; Adonai – The Lord; Ayn Sof – the Eternal; Shekhinah – the Indwelling Presence.
The letters of the Hebrew alphabet all have a numeric value, and so the four numbers in the Hebrew year can be read as a word, an acronym, or a name, suggesting that the new number of each year indicates a new Divine name.
My teacher Reb Zalman, alav hashalom, explains a fascinating tradition: “The name of God, which is the interface between infinity and the finite that wants to keep order in the universe and keep it working, gets dislodged by our wrongdoing. At the end of the year, the name has to be changed and a new name has to descend from the highest realms to become the new interface for the coming year…On Rosh Hashanah the old name gets scrapped and the new name is dislodged by the shofar. The new name is drawn down during the ten days of teshuvah…Finally, in the four days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, the four letters of this year’s new name arrive, one each day. That’s why these four days are known as God’s name, Gotts numen…This process began with the name for the year being transcendent, distant, then coming closer until it is within the height of a sukkah and then fully internalized on Simchat Torah.” (A Guide for Starting Your New Incarnation, page 56)
“..Every Rosh Hashanah…I have to reconfigure my system as to who is God for me in the coming year. If I deal with the old God, I’m going to be dealing with a childhood notion of God, and my relationship would be fixed at a very childish level. So I have to break the mold at least once a year to get rid of the old images that I have outgrown or made an idol of.” (Page 134-5, Wrapped in a Holy Flame.)
Imagination is a wonderful tool in spiritual life. The spiritual and imaginal realms are intimately connected. Like the story of our mythic ancestor Abraham smashing idols his father had carved, at least once a year we too have to deconstruct our core ideas, to dismantle the apparatus we’ve built in our minds to make sense of the mystery around us, to let go of old names and images.
We are so fortunate that participation in our beautiful Jewish rituals does not require any standardized declaration of faith or uniformity of belief. When we come together as a praying community, someone who loves the Divine as a kindly parent may be seated next to someone who prefers contemplation of the Ineffable. Someone who is moved by the images of Divine hands, arms and face may be sitting next to someone who is enthralled with new ideas of the Divine as the ultimate emergent phenomenon. I think we enjoy a depth of community not in spite of our diversity, but because of it.
One of the most well-known common and most difficult to translate Hebrew words is ‘shalom.’ Used as a greeting, it can mean hello or goodbye. From the combination of the root letters shin, lamed and mem, many meanings are derived, including completion, reciprocity, restitution, well-being and peace. So the peace of ‘shalom’ is not strictly the absence of conflict or the cessation of violence, but the integration of diverse elements.
Many years ago someone donated a framed needlework of the word ‘shalom’ in Hebrew. When Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield, of blessed memory, was teaching here, he mentioned to me that the piece should be handled with special care because “Shalom is a name of God.”
The Book of Judges is primarily a war story, but when he is called to service, the young hero Gidiyon declares (6:24): “HaShem shalom,” which the rabbis of the Talmud interpret to mean, “The name of God is Peace.” (Shabbat 10b)
I think ‘shalom’ is not just one of many names for the Divine, but the most wonderful Divine name, and not just the most wonderful Divine name, but the only Divine name that makes sense at this time; not the only name that has come down to us from the tradition, but the only name coming down from Heaven right now to inspire and guide us through the tremendous challenges facing humanity and the rest of the world. Some will argue that peace is a luxury, but most thinking people in the world understand that peace is a necessity. Shocking events capture mainstream headlines, but we must not fail to appreciate the many quiet victories of nonviolent statecraft and powerful citizen-led movements effecting positive change across the world. On this Rosh Hashanah, I hope we can strengthen our efforts to increase the peace in ourselves, our families, our communities, societies, our eco-systems, and our nations.
Later, as we close the service, we’ll sing, “You are all that we praise You for,” a beautiful interpretive translation by Rabbi Ronald Aigen, editor of our beautiful machzor. A more literal translation would read, “As your name, so is your praise – ki k’sh’mecha kayn tehilatecha.” (Chadesh Yamenu, page 299)
We often find it difficult to commend the love and kindness of a Creator who allows so much suffering and heartbreak in the world. But in our stronger moments, when we feel supported by love and community, I hope all of us would whole-heartedly praise a Divine persona whose name is “Shalom.”
May we hold in our hearts a vision of a time when the Divine essence and the Divine name will be one, unified expression of Shalom.
L’shana tovah u’metukah – I wish you each a good, sweet New Year.