Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Friday, April 30, 2021

Profaning Thy Name

The Torah portion this week, Emor, warns us three times about profaning God’s name. By Torah’s terse language standards, this threefold caution is like a flashing neon sign: “stay away from God’s proper name.”

What is God’s proper name? Well, I can’t really tell you because God’s name is a phonetic impossibility. In the Hebrew it is spelled yod-hey-vav-hey but it is used throughout our tradition, from Torah to liturgy, without a pronunciation key. We know it’s holy, but we do not know for sure how to pronounce it in all its glory.

According to tradition, the only time God’s actual name was spoken aloud was once year at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. On Yom Kippur, the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies and call out the name. Unfortunately, no one could hear him outside. Thus, since the Temple’s destruction in 70 CE, no one has uttered the actual name of God with clear certainty that they’ve said it correctly.

No wonder our rabbis see pronouncing the Holy name as a terrible sin. If I take umbrage with being called “Mah-ra” instead of Mara, imagine how offensive would it be to pronounce God’s name wrongly? Perhaps this is better. If we don’t know God’s name, we can’t profane it. We can’t mock it. We can’t forget it. It exists outside of and above our feelings about it.

So then what are these words we have been using? We certainly have named God numerous times in our service so far. Well, Adonai is ok to pronounce because it’s a human title for God – it translates to “my Master.” And the word “God” comes straight out of the Germanic language family…so that’s ok too. Plus there’s a ton of other euphemisms - Avinu Malkeinu, Hashem, Hakodesh Barekh Hu, etc.

Yet despite all of these designations for God, the name derived from Yod-Hey-Vav-Hey is the most holy. Our greatest clue to understanding the name is in Exodus 3:13-14. When God appears to Moses in the Burning Bush episode, Moses is told to return to Egypt to free the Israelites. But Moses objects to God saying that the people will not believe him. He says, “When they ask me ‘What is the name of this God who sends you’ what shall I tell them?” God says to Moses, ‘Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh,’ (I Am That I Am…which can also be translated ‘I Will Be What I Will Be.’ And God says, ‘Tell the Israelite people, “I Am has sent me to you.”’”

The connection to the verb “to be” indicates that God’s name has something to do with God’s transcendent nature. God is everything and no thing at the same time. Where is God? Everywhere and nowhere. God just…is.

This has us see God as an entity bigger than what we can fathom. If our human brain cannot fully comprehend the mystery of the universe’s totality, how could our lips possible wrap around the sound of it? Indeed, if we knew the true “name” for God, wouldn’t we have inherently diminished what God is? Made God more human? We’d be wading into the waters of idolatry.

God’s name isn’t really a name at all…it’s a clue into God’s essence.

It’s different for us humans, though. Our names are essential to how we navigate the world. We choose new names when we want to mark a change in our identity. Our names come with ever-evolving reputations, impressions and assumptions attached to them – either from within our own psych or outside forces. The Israeli poet Zelda famously wrote:

Each of us has a name
given by God
and given by our parents
Each of us has a name
given by our stature and our smile
and given by what we wear
Each of us has a name
given by the mountains
and given by our walls
Each of us has a name
given by the stars
and given by our neighbors
Each of us has a name
given by our sins
and given by our longing
Each of us has a name
given by our enemies
and given by our love
Each of us has a name
given by our celebrations
and given by our work
Each of us has a name
given by the seasons
and given by our blindness
Each of us has a name
given by the sea
and given by
our death.

Zelda begins with the name God gave us, which is unknown and undefined, much like God’s own name. After all, we are b’tzelem Elohim, created in God’s imprint. Like God, our potential often goes unrecognized. Our infinite dimensions are only partially explored. We may spend our whole lives trying to discover these, just as we reach for the many dimensions of God.

She follows this with “the name given by our parents” may or may not speak to who we are. Our past often traps us, the trauma of the previous generations has been handed to us against our will. Yet, we have the power to change that name, literally or not, by the way we comport ourselves: when we smile, how we dress, when we choose to take a moment for gratitude and when we roll up our sleeves and get to work.

In talking about mountains and walls and longings, Zelda expresses how our names are determined by the limits we set for ourselves. Limits can suppress us and, at the same time, they can make us safe. Similarly, the name our enemies give us may be as cherished as that our friends call us by – what may be a slur from our foe may be in fact be a badge of honor. With all that, I’ve been thinking a lot this week about what Zelda means by “Each of us has a name given by the seasons and given by our blindness.” I think about it especially in this season, the season reckoning with systemic racism, misogyny and abuse.

For example, the New York Times recently printed an OpEd from Planned Parenthood, where the organization named Margaret Sanger, their founding mother. Once venerated, they laid bare her complicated history: which includes racist choices and policies influenced by eugenics. Instead of ignoring this, and instead of explaining it as “a product of her time,” Planned Parenthood declared it wrong and corrected the narrative around the Sanger name. They wrote: “Sanger remains an influential part of our history and will not be erased, but as we tell the history of Planned Parenthood’s founding, we must fully take responsibility for the harm that Sanger caused to generations of people with disabilities and Black, Latino, Asian-American, and Indigenous people.”

A similar reckoning has been happening in the last few months, even in the last week, within our own Reform Jewish community. Names of leaders within our movement that for so long had been venerated and respected have been placed before us as criminal. Reports of abusive and predatory behavior were publicly attributed to them. It has been difficult for many in the Reform Jewish community to hear the names of their beloved professors, rabbis, and leaders talked about in this way.

In these cases, though, these people have earned the name given by their sins.

The end of this week’s Torah portion relays a difficult story: an unnamed man gets into a fight with another unnamed man. In the midst of the squabble, the first man blasphemes the proper name of God, using it in a profane context, invoking it carelessly. He’s made an example of by being taken out of the camp and stoned.

We don’t know the man’s name. He’s only identified as the son of Shlomit, of the tribe of Dan. Rashi explains that when someone has done something wrong, even when their name has been forgotten, their shame still remains on their parents, on their tribe, and on our people.
Today, we don’t stone blasphemers, people who have profaned God’s name by inflicting harm on others. But we are taking them outside of the camp, refusing to connect our names to theirs.

Our responsibility is to constantly hold our community to a higher standard. We must take as much care with our own names as we do with the name of God.

This is why Proverbs (22:1) states: “Choose for yourself a good name above wealth, it is worth more than silver and gold.” And why Rabbi Shimon said, “There are three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of royalty. However, the crown of a good name is greater than all of them.” (Pirkei Avot 4:13).

This week Torah tells us: “You shall faithfully observe My commandments: I am the Eternal. You shall not profane My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people – I the Eternal who sanctify you, I who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God, I the Eternal.” God’s name is more than a moniker. God’s name is affixed to the miracles we witness – from the splitting of the sea, to vaccines, to the name of the liberation movements reversing the current of our culture, bringing justice in its tide.

God’s name is unpronounceable because God’s nature is infinite. We exhibit a fraction of that: when we die, what’s left of us is our name and the legacy attached to it. May we choose for ourselves a good name, may our actions speak to the highest estimation of what we can be. May we craft that name b’tzelem Elohim, striving for holiness in the names to aspire to.