Tetragrammaton in stained glass from the former Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows in Chicago’s Navy Pier.
Last week our sidra reviewed the birth and early life of Moses, and the first revelation of God through the burning bush on Mount Horeb. Three names are used for the Divine Presence: אלהים – Elohim – God; יהוה – YHVH – pronounced euphemistically as Adonai, and translated euphemistically as “The Lord,” or in more gender neutral terms, “The Eternal;” and אהיה – Ehyeh, which is actually the first-person future tense of the verb “to be.” Of these, it is only the third which is new, as the first two are introduced in the Book of Genesis in God’s communication with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In this first theophany, God self-identifies as אהיה אשר אהיה – Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh – “I will be what I will be.”
At the beginning of this week’s sidra, Moses experiences a second theophany, in which God self-identifies definitively as יהוה – YHVH – Adonai. It is יהוה who renews the covenantal promise with Moses, and charges Moses with the mission to lead the Israelites out of Egypt in the name of יהוה , with extraordinary miracles and chastisements.
Our sacred history, then, holds that Moses undertook his mission in the name of יהוה, or, in more contemporary usage, “in the name of God.” Regardless of the degree to which we take this story at face value or not, we generally do accept the underlying values of this text, one of which is the rejection of cruel slavery and oppression. Nevertheless as we know, history is filled with groups who have perpetrated cruel and brutal acts, claiming, and most probably believing, that it was “in the name of God.” Christians, Muslims, Jews, and others as well, are all guilty of appropriating this theology in the commission of heinous acts. And of course, when we look around at our country and our world at this time, we are all too cognizant of the fact that there are individuals and groups who commit horrific acts – evil acts – in the claim and belief that they are acting “in the name of God.”
As the heirs to a rich and wonderful religious tradition, we nevertheless need to be on our guard in a world that all too easily claims that it acts “in the name of God.” As liberal Jews, we look to our tradition for the values of benevolence and humanitarianism that are certainly abundant within it. Yet we understand that the world and milieu that produced the Biblical texts was also filled with violence and vengeance. Our responsibility is to cast off these destructive impulses, and uphold and promote those values that will lead to greater respect for the dignity of human beings, and a state of peace and wholeness for those who live on this Earth. These are lofty values to be sure. But we cannot afford to relinquish them, or to cease our pursuit of them.